A couple of years ago when I lived in Lee, New Hampshire, there was a big ceremony a few miles down the road at the arena of the University of New Hampshire, for the Rev. Gene Robinson, who was being made the Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson is gay, so this was a big deal, and my friend Holly and I went down to watch the protests. There were plenty of people on the pro-gay side of the argument, all standing around in the rain, and after a good while a small delegation from the Westboro Baptist Church rolled up and took their appointed place amongst the protest ropes laid out by the police. These are the followers of the odious Fred Phelps of Kansas. They had all their "God hates Fags" signs out, and stood around in their appointed spot and tried to make a scene.
I had a notebook and an umbrella and so I pretended I was a reporter on a deadline and went up and talked to someone in their pit. I stood next to a woman who was protesting and asked her for her thoughts. She started talking but there was something really weird about her, like she was strung up on something and not really herself. She talked to me about her feelings about gays, but it was more like a rant, and more like something she had had drilled into her -- there was something robotic about her words, and nothing that seemed to convey any emotion. It seemed all very rote. The most notable thing was that she refused to look anywhere close to my eyes.... After about two minutes I stopped and since it was raining really hard I stepped aside and let them protest another 10 minutes or so, when they they marched out of the area, to jeers mostly, and got back on their bus.
All in all they seemed pretty pathetic. And completely ineffectual.
So I am surprised to see someone awarded $10.9M dollars because the Westboro Baptist Church protested at his son's funeral. His son was a fallen Marine. I am more than sure than this man grieves for his son. I think the Westboro Baptist Church are bastards who one should get their comeuppance. But I don't think that matters. I think the Westboro Baptist Church has a right to protest at this guy's funeral, and express any thoughts they want, however odious. I don't think the courts have any business fining them for expressing their First Amendment rights. This is a classic first amendment case -- that is, the only ones who really need first amendment rights are those don't seem to deserve it. They were cited for emotional distress and invasion of privacy, but come on, any judge should surely know this kind of speech is allowed under the First Amendment. This is why the First Amendment was invented. But all-in-all I think they have the right to be there.
I can't take the Westboro Baptist Church seriously, especially based on what I saw that day at UNH. I saw that there is no passion behind their words, just a form of... well, evil. Not inherent evil -- I don't believe in that. These were just poor people -- and they were mostly kids who were protesting -- who had been severely warped by their parents and grandparents. The parents and grandparents were noticeably absent. But when you looked them in the face, you saw they were just pathetic, not threatening. They won't look you in the eyes. In a way, it says all you need to know.