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What Westboro Baptist Defectors Can Teach Us All About Free Speech


“GOD HATES FAGS.” “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS.” “THANK GOD FOR AIDS.” These are the kinds of signs members of Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church like to hold up while protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Westboro Baptists believe 9/11 was part of God’s coming punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality. They say God has called their church to picket soldiers’ funerals to warn America of other judgments, still forthcoming.

Two years ago, The New Yorker ran a gripping piece on Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro. Megan was indoctrinated in Phelps’ vision of “truth” from birth. She loved picketing at military funerals. She confesses that her immediate response, on learning of 9/11 while standing in a crowded high school hallway, was to exclaim, “Awesome!” She and other church members traveled to New York to picket at Ground Zero.

Her proficiency in spreading Westboro’s message of hate made Megan a rising star in the church. Even as a young girl, she was entrusted with important tasks: she did her first live radio interview about the church while in sixth grade. She spent hours in the chat room of the church’s website debating strangers about the church’s beliefs.

One fateful day in 2008, Megan discovered Twitter. She began using it to spew the church’s hateful messages, thrilled that it allowed her to reach a much broader audience. On World AIDS Day, she tweeted “Thank God for AIDS!” and on learning of Ted Kennedy’s death, she tweeted, “He defied God at every turn, teaching rebellion against His laws. Ted’s in hell!”

Most of us are not regularly confronted with this level of vitriol. However, due to the increased polarization in political views and decline in civility in political discourse, all of us are regularly exposed to views that we find distasteful or even offensive. The question each of us must answer is, “How should I respond?”

Some Respond by Hiding

A prevailing view on today’s college campuses is that administrators must protect students from speech that any may deem offensive or intolerant. But they often apply this protective motive not only to Westboro’s repulsive beliefs, but also to the mainstream viewpoints of millions of Americans that just aren’t popular in the ivory towers of many public universities. Many university officials answer that people who espouse views they lump together as “unpopular” should all be prohibited from even setting foot on campus.

What’s more, students and faculty are demanding that colleges create “safe spaces” where students can be protected from hearing ideas or messages they deem offensive and can fully express themselves without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe.

Even at colleges and universities that choose not to violate the First Amendment by banning unpopular speech, students and faculty regularly attempt to silence unpopular guests on campus by physically blocking doors to prevent students from attending, shouting down speakers so they cannot speak, and sometimes outright rioting. And why not? What good can possibly come from allowing the presentation, no matter how civil, of views so many deem offensive or unpopular?

Many who read Megan’s tweets would likely agree with these administrators’ approach. They would either block her from social media to avoid even seeing her hateful messages or respond with one of their own. But David Abitbol, and a few others, took a different approach.

What Happens When People Engage Instead of Run

David is Jewish and founder of the Jewish-culture blog Jewlicious. When Westboro Baptist started targeting its venom at Jews, Megan learned David was very influential in those circles, and began tagging David in tweets condemning “unrepentant” Jews. As a founder of Net Hate, a website featuring a directory of websites of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, and other racist groups, David had a lot of experience dealing with hateful people. Megan was only the latest.

He had learned that the most effective way of dealing with such people was not to block them or respond in kind but to relate to them on a human level. So David responded to Megan’s tweets with honesty, humor, and even kindness. A few of her other Twitter followers took a similar approach.

As a result, Megan began corresponding regularly with David, engaging in friendly but spirited debates related to Westboro’s message and practices. Megan even met David in person while participating in a Westboro protest at a festival he had organized. Through these interactions with David and the others who responded with kindness, Megan learned about their interests, saw pictures of their children, and gained an understanding of how they viewed the world.

In other words, Megan began to see David and some of her other opponents as people, rather than a plague. Eventually, that brought her to a life-changing conclusion: Westboro was wrong.

“That was the first time I came to a place,” Megan said, “where I disagreed, I knew I disagreed, and I didn’t accept the answer that [Westboro] gave.” The realization launched a two-year journey that ultimately led Megan and her younger sister to leave the church—and with it their family, their friends, and the only community they had ever known.

When David learned that Megan had left Westboro, he invited her and her sister to speak at a Jewlicious festival in Long Beach. Reactions to the news from attendees were predictably incredulous. As one said, “So, now they’re not batsh**-crazy gay haters and we’re supposed to love them? F*** that.” But there wasn’t one dry eye among those who heard Megan and her sister speak.

What’s the lesson? To those contemplating a solution for restoring civil discourse on college campuses—and in society as a whole—consider an alternative to responding to hate with more hate. Or exclusion. Or silence.

What if the answer doesn’t lie with more university policies banning “hate speech,” preventing certain speakers from coming to campus, establishing safe spaces, and condoning violent protests? What if the solution is much simpler? What if Martin Luther King Jr. was right? “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”