The University of Northern Colorado (UNC), a modest school in the little-known town of Greeley, recently accomplished something remarkable. Though they utterly opposed his views, UNC students invited Pastor Fred Phelps to discuss his anti-gay beliefs. Members of the Phelps family’s Westboro Church typically shout insults at their opponents. Their opponents typically shout back. This time, no one shouted. UNC debated hate, and reason won.
I had never seen the flamboyant Fred Phelps in person. After a visit to the website of his Westboro Baptist Church (www.godhatesfags.com), I doubted that I ever wanted to meet any members of his Topeka, Kansas, church. Phelps gained notoriety when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming murdered for his sexual orientation. Outside Shepard’s service, Phelps and his supporters carried signs reading “Burn in hell, fag,” while yelling insults into a bullhorn.
Recently, Phelps’ church targeted schools that had “SafeZone Programs” for gay, lesbian, trans-gender, and bisexual students. They put the UNC on notice, accusing its first-year president, Kay Norton, of “leading kids to lives of sin, shame, disease, misery, death, and Hell.” At other colleges Phelps has visited, tensions have mounted and tempers flared. Phelps represented everything that I, a teacher of philosophy and law, opposed. I shuddered to think of Westboro church members visiting the campus where I taught.
Yet there were students with more courage than I. Alicia Galleos, co-editor of the campus news-paper, wrote editorials promoting a reasoned response to hate. Her articles led some students to adopt a “Welcome and Debate” approach rather than a “Forbid and Protest” strategy. Two of the students in my Ideas in Conflict class, Clark Callahan and Nathan Havey, founded Students for the Eradication of Ignorance and Intolerance (SEII). They took matters into their own hands and invited the Westboro Church to a debate.
When they learned of the plans, administrators maneuvered to cancel or downplay the scheduled debate. They instilled fear in the student leaders with tales of how Pastor Phelps specialized in instigating violence and filing lawsuits. Indeed, most of the Westboro congregation are themselves lawyers who target their opponents with lawsuits. Eleven of Phelps’ 13 children have law degrees. Phelps himself has been disbarred for harassing court reporters and federal judges. The family church comes complete with a law firm of Phelps Chartered. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counted nearly 200 lawsuits filed by the group.
The student leaders forged ahead, even as fears began to seem reasonable. Ignoring written threats delivered under his door, one of the student leaders, Clark, went for a jog a few days before the scheduled debate. A car followed; a passenger chased Clark; the driver blocked Clark’s flight. The two assailants left Clark with cracked ribs and a bashed nose. They screamed anti-gay slurs as they beat him. The campus police still have not found the attackers.
Many UNC faculty members said they supported the debate, yet most said they would not attend the debate because of likely violence. My students asked me to participate in the debate, but my supervisor, Dean Sandra Flake, cautioned me against it.
People I respect argue that the hateful should not be debated. A few years ago, Sol Shulman, a Holocaust survivor, had convinced me of the inappropriateness of providing a platform for white supremacist Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator. So I canceled an invitation to Hale to speak to my class and instead invited Sol. His moving story hit the students hard, or at least I thought it did. I began to have doubts when a student later referred to Sol as “that old cryin’ dude.” Without coming face to face with the kind of hate Sol had survived, could the students grasp what he had suffered?
I went to a demonstration after Hale gave a speech at a public library. There, I watched a female student quietly debating Hale, surrounded by Hale’s bodyguards, who in turn were surrounded by police who held back a crowd of shouting demonstrators.
I remembered the times I had tried to prevent those preaching hate from speaking. Once, I shouted to drown out the rantings of the KKK marching through the black ghetto in Atlanta, Georgia. I wrote articles defending hate speech codes and criticizing free speech protections of hate speech. Yet I kept returning to the image of that student quietly arguing with Hale amidst screaming protesters. Perhaps Zev Kedem, another Holocaust survivor, who argues that those who hate can’t stand rational debate, had a point. There was something tremendously powerful in that calmly rational figure insisting on conversation.
The final shift in my thinking came at an Oxford University conference when I watched Holocaust survivors celebrate a legal victory over hate. In a British court, Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, defeated a libel suit by David Irving, a reputed Holocaust denier. The lessons seemed obvious to me. The more structured and ordered the interaction, the less likely it was that hate and emotion would prevail. Dean Flake remained respectfully unconvinced.
As the UNC debate neared, we learned that no school had ever hosted a debate of the Westboro Church. More typical was what happened at nearby Fort Collins. There, before the Colorado State University (CSU) homecoming football game against the University of Wyoming, 300 CSU students gathered. Most of the protesters sang and danced; others screamed and shouted at the 11 Westboro Church members with their “God hates fags” signs.
The UNC student organizers received harsh criticisms from all sides. I commiserated with them, but paranoia invaded my psyche. The students had arranged for the debaters to meet ahead of the event. As the appointed hour approached, I increasingly dreaded the meeting. I decided to lurk in the shadows while others gathered. I thought “skinheads” and sensed trouble when I saw a bald man make calls on a cell phone. I became suspicious of an older man with a clerical collar whispering to his bodyguard. Later, to my embarrassment, a student introduced me first to a bald newspaper reporter and then to a gay rights minister along with one of his parishioners. As a bald man with a collared pullover and armed with a cell phone, I felt hypocritical and ashamed.
I approached Fred Phelps, Jr. and his younger brother Jonathan. Relieved at the absence of their father, I shook hands and talked with “the enemies.” As fellow lawyers, we exchanged lawyer jokes. Perhaps, I thought, if we talked with our opponents, we might show respect for them and for ourselves.
The student organizers did not anticipate a large crowd. Posted notices for the event kept disap-pearing. The administration changed the location four times. But more and more people began to pass through the police weapons scan. The audience grew to 2,000 students, a significant proportion of a total campus population of 10,000.
The student organizers carefully structured the debate. James Keaten, a professor of speech communication, strictly enforced the allotted time limits for opening statements. As moderator, he gave each speaker three minutes for unrehearsed responses to questions prepared by the student organizers.
Matthew Bersagel, a pastor at Greeley’s Our Saviors Lutheran Church, began the discussion. He lamented, “For a religion to somehow wind up in a hateful place diminishes people.” Paul Schumann, pastor at the Bear Valley Christian Church in Lakewood, Colorado, distinguished between hatred of the homosexual sin and love for the homo-sexual sinner. As the only secularist philosopher on the panel, I questioned basing morality on the Bible. I wondered why purists did not object to the immorality described in the Old Testament. Our side began to break ranks when Pastor Craig Peterson of Mountain View Community Church took exception to my anti-religious views.
The contingent from the Westboro Church used a two-pronged strategy. First, they read passages from the Old Testament, primarily passages from Leviticus. Jonathan Phelps warned that God does not forgive hardcore sinners like homo-sexuals. Second, they tried to provoke the audience to express hate. The students sat silent each time Fred Phelps, Jr. asked if they hated Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Matthew Shepard’s killers. They cheered wildly when asked if they would show their support for “homosexuals” by standing and identifying themselves as “gay.” Unable to provoke rage, the Phelps’ disjointed rantings fizzled. At the close of the debate, the students gave a standing ovation. Afterward, the representatives of the Westboro Church dejectedly left under police escort.
Neither silence nor shouting accomplishes very much compared to structured discussion. UNC students defied stereotypes of student apathy. They proved their political courage by attending the debate despite warnings of impending danger. They listened respectfully and resisted hate mongering. Many students express pride in the University of Northern Colorado’s achievement in hosting these discussions. After the debate, a Greeley Tribune poll found that 60 percent of its readers favored the debate. Despite continuing negative reactions from the administration, the student leaders have organized debates on the war in Iraq and they plan future debates with abortion opponents. I wish I could report that every debate since has been civil. Tempers rose recently during informal discussions over the war in Iraq. How easy it is to forget the key role of structure and order. Further, I am not sure if the Phelps debate brought a reduction of racism, homophobia, or hate incidents. I am sure, however, that it stimulated more and better questions and that it helped to create a more politically engaged community.
We may refuse to debate our irrational enemies. It may seem politically unwise to give those who preach hate a forum. Yet those who stir the emotions often fail in rational settings. Hate feels more comfortable in the dark. Hate thrives at night, in a deserted stretch of Wyoming prairie or along a lone jogger’s path. Hidden in the shadows, hate calls itself tough. But in the glaring light of an auditorium stage, under the watchful gaze of a courteous audience, and within a structure that enforces the forms of rationality, it loses force. Fear grows when we imagine something terrible but unknown. Civil debate disarms that power.
Illinois State University Professor Thomas Simon currently holds the Robert Schulze Distinguished Chair at the University of Northern Colorado.
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