Though the Westboro Baptist Church never showed Friday night at Syracuse University's Carrier Dome, all was not lost.
The much-anticipated appearance by members of the controversial church known for inflammatory messages prompted an animated, vocal, even festive counter protest, primarily by Syracuse University students. Their chants could be heard down Irving Avenue and around the Dome in the cold drizzle Friday night. Their signs were as colorful as their outfits - one sign mocked one of the Westboro's most famous slogans with a comical twist: "God Hates Figs." Even Santa Claus and Mario (from Nintendo fame) were seen in the mix.
Orange Fans on their way up to the Dome for the biggest game of the season so far expressed a range of confusion, admiration and disinterest in the protest. Some thought it was just another boisterous pre-game gathering. But others knew it had a little more substance.
Just days before, the WBC issued a press release condemning the university and collegiate athletics in general for recent sex scandals. The church's opportunistic grasp of the media spotlight is typical in today's media climate. Piling onto the already combustible scandal enveloping the Syracuse University basketball program got the small church in the news again.
The anticipated appearance by members of the church was going to give those of us who live in Syracuse a first-hand lesson in the First Amendment and free speech. It is one thing to read about Supreme Court cases in a casebook. It is another thing to see the same people up close and personal, right in front of you picketing on your home turf.
Earlier in the week, the church posted a press release on its website announcing plans to picket in front of the Dome. The roughly 70-member church took its right to picket at military funerals all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In March, in Snyder v. Phelps, the court ruled in favor of the protesters' First Amendment rights to engage in public debate on public issues. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote even if the message "falls short of refined social or political commentary" or is "morally flawed" or otherwise hateful or offensive, speech should not be suppressed.
In its press release, the church said: "Syracuse resembles all of the other universities in doomed USA: full of proud, fornicating, brutish sinners, bowing down to college sports." The release goes on to name and criticize head coach Jim Boeheim and the embroiled former associate head coach Bernie Fine.
The church learned about the Syracuse scandal "the same way everyone else does" through the media - traditional television and newspapers as well as internet-based social media, said Rachel Hockenbarger, one of church founder Rev. Fred Phelps' 13 children.
In a telephone conversation Thursday afternoon, Hockenbarger said seven church members signed up to travel to Syracuse because the Syracuse community "needs some preaching to."
She said members of the Topeka, Kansas, church typically work with local police or university officials to determine where to set up their pickets. Last month, four members of the church traveled to the Penn State-Nebraska football game to wage their protest.
When news of the WBC's intended visit to the SU campus became public, the student response was almost immediate. Students and counter protesters mobilized as did Syracuse University and Syracuse police.
SU's Department of Public Safety Chief Tony Callisto said the university deals with groups that are not affiliated with the university two or three times a year. The university's policy is to allow groups affiliated with student groups on campus. Other unaffiliated groups, like the WBC, are directed to public streets abutting the campus. With the WBC, the plan was to show their picketers a place on Irving Avenue across from the Dome. The student counter protestors were allowed on the university side of the street, he said, "to create a buffer and keep it a safe environment."
As of Thursday night, the university had not had any contact with church members. But, he added, "Everyone's aware and prepared. Certainly our goal is to have this uneventful." Police and DPS officials on the scene Friday night waited for the protesters to show up.
In the end, it might appear to be quite a non-event. There were no riots or arrests. And, besides the 24,000 basketball fans in the Dome, the only ones who showed up were the counter protesters.
But there was still plenty of speech and lots of discussion in the lead up. Some local media covered the event while others ignored it, opting not to give the church more publicity.
With other appearances listed on its website, including military funerals in Iowa and other events, the WBC issued a statement to the media late Friday night, "Sorry - too many pickets, not enough time. We had to reroute some resources to get ready for a protest elsewhere. Syracuse got the message. Obey God or be destroyed."
It's not clear whether they meant the Syracuse community in general or SU. The only message most people got was a lesson in free speech and debate. And, having more speech and debate in the air is always a good lesson.
Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. This is this piece can also be viewed at the Tully Center's Free Speech Zone at http://tully.syr.edu.
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