Should a community respond when Westboro Baptist Church picketers come to town?

My post on Monday about the Westboro Baptist Church’s plans to picket Savannah schools and religious institutions has attracted over 2,200 page views. That’s on a blog that averages 80-something views per post.

Part of that overwhelming response might be due to the relative slowness with which the information was reported by other local media; I’m beginning to think that our print publications have made a conscious choice to delay coverage.

I’ve had a lot of questions and issues thrown my way since that post about the role of the media and the responsibility of the community in the face of this news. Let me tackle two of those.

Why cover WBC at all? They obviously just want attention, so if we all just ignore them, we’ll lessen their power, right?

The most basic — and perhaps the weakest — argument to report the news is that consumers want to read it. Yes, there are times when I think legitimate news organizations and even blogs like mine should refrain from covering things that would no doubt arouse interest (I don’t really think there’s a compelling need, for example, for the U.S. to release a photo of Bin Laden’s corpse), but coverage of the WBC strikes me as defensible — even necessary — for a number of reasons:

  • such coverage does not necessarily use others as means to an end
  • it is not analogous to the salacious coverage of celebrities or the invasions of personal privacy that are so prevalent in the media generally
  • many Americans respond with such visceral anger to the WBC slogans, pickets at soldiers’ funerals, etc., that the news is going to get out anytime they’re coming to town and citizens are going to react whether the media encourages them or not
  • ignoring the WBC also means ignoring the inevitable community response(s)

Also, and I think this is a critical issue, the WBC’s picketing is one of the most challenging manifestations of our Constitutional right to free speech. A couple of months ago, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that their protests at soldiers’ funerals were protected speech. Justice Alito’s dissent raised all sorts of troubling issues about the regulation of nonviolent public protests. Such Constitutional issues are quite frankly news, as are the issues related to local ordinances, the use of sidewalks, etc.

Ok, so maybe the local media should report on it, but isn’t it best that citizens just ignore the picketers to the greatest extent possible?

I respect and applaud any citizens who choose to insulate themselves from the hate marketed by the WBC.

But there are many individuals and groups that will have good reason to want to respond in some way.

Military organizations have seen the pickets at soldiers’ funerals as a particularly hurtful affront to surviving family and to the armed services generally. Jewish groups, knowing the long and deep history of anti-Semitism, might see a moral obligation to speak out. Ditto for gay organizations that are especially concerned about the influence that the WBC might have on young people and others struggling with issues of sexual orientation. Christian organizations might also find reason to make some sort of statement. Since the picketers are also apparently targeting schools while they’re in town, some educators will undoubtedly craft some sort of response. Community activists who envision a more integrated and united citizenry might see a chance to bring diverse people together to make a stand for shared values.

I’m sure I’ve left someone out.

I guess the risk is that in responding at all we help the WBC spread its message, which might negatively influence a select few who would not otherwise have heard it. But there seem to me to be greater risks in not responding at all — and there seems to be much potential good that can come from organized responses.

There are a number of communities that have found novel ways to respond, and there are any number of actions already planned in Savannah for the week of May 22nd. I’ll be writing about some of those in an upcoming post.