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Civil Action: Fighting Hate Speech with Free Speech


"Matthew Shepard rots in hell," Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps and his followers yelled outside the Wyoming County courthouse where Russell Henderson was being tried for the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. Phelps had also picketed Shepard’s funeral. 

At the trial, however, Phelps and company were confronted by a group wearing white robes with giant wings led by Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Shepard’s. Angel Action, as the group came to be known, received national media attention, and became the basis for Moises Kaufmann’s play and quasi documentary, The Laramie Project.

It has also since become a model for other groups seeking creative ways to counter hate speech with free speech.

Phelps has garnered considerable media attention recently for using the funerals of American soldiers as another stage to voice his opinions about homosexuals. In response, the American Legion Riders chapter 136 from Kansas formed the Patriot Guard Riders.  To protect mourning families from the insults and disruption of the Westboro group, the Riders shield mourners by standing guard with American flags and revving motorcycle engines to drown out the protestors. 

While the Patriot Guard Riders work in cooperation with the mourning families and local law enforcement, others have not been as careful to stay within the boundaries of the law.

In August 1999, an anonymous “hate hacker” redirected the URL for Phelps’ website. Internet users who attempted to access www.godhatesfags.com were sent instead to www.godlovesfags.com, a blog that supports gay rights. This “re-direct” was criticized not only by Phelps but also by civil libertarians. In response to a threat of legal action, the hacker restored the URL. 

[Exploiting a common tendency of internet users to mistake .org and .com web addresses, the hacker later set up a stealth site, www.godhatesfags.org, which redirects the user to www.godlovesfags.org. The hacker owns both domains.]

Ironically, many of those interviewed for this article thought hate speech should be legally protected, even as they were engaged in efforts to combat it. Scott W. Deal, New York State Captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, pointed out that these soldiers are dying to give Mr. Phelps the right to speak freely.  He sees his group relying on that freedom to combat an abuse of it. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” he says.

In fact, groups such as his rely on the existence of Phelps’ website in order to plan their activities. “Historable,” a blogger on the godlovesfags website, wrote that the Phelps website provided a complete listing of his upcoming events: “Seeing no schedule for the protests for the weeks in July, I thought, (why not) try (the) .com to find the dates. It is a brilliantly designed tool to learn about the enemy in order to defeat him.”

Respecting the rights of perpetrators of hate speech is important in others ways, according to Patrick Hinds, the co-author of The Whole World Was Watching, a book about Angel Action. “Part of what Phelps' organization does is to try to engage people, make them angry, and hope they will hit one of his people,” says Hinds. “They fund their cross country ‘hate campaigns’ through lawsuits won over altercations like these.”

The Angels, he says, “were created specifically to block out Fred Phelps and to act as a human barricade between Phelps and any citizens gathered at an event where Phelps (was) protesting.” By preventing altercations, the members of Phelps’ church did not get all the media attention they were expecting. Instead, when the group was surrounded by the angels it made them “look like the fools they are.”

Miriam Yeung, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations for the LGBT Community Center in New York, is not so optimistic about the advantages of protecting hate speech. Hate speech, she says, can still attract many people, especially from the “mushy end,” those who tend to sway from one side to the other and are not educated enough about the subject to create their own balanced opinion. While freedom of speech should not be limited, in her opinion, there ought to be a “sharper distinction between speech that is simply hate speech and speech that is violent.”

Jessie Daniels, author of White Lies, a book about the ideology of white supremacists, argues that the absolutist view of free speech "systematically disadvantages some members of society and thus diminishes the rights of others to live free from hateful expression." 

But, says Adrienne Fulco, professor of public policy and law at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, the Constitution does not protect against hurtful and offensive language. Free speech has been significantly expanded over the past half century in the Supreme Court and much work has been done to "draw a line between (hateful) speech and expression on one side, and action on the other." 

There are a variety of reasons why those in American society must be concerned with protecting hate speech, not least of which the desire to keep big government away from making judgments about the relative offensiveness of speech. Granting the government the ability to judge or favor one type of speech, says Fulco, could eventually allow "those in power to simply protect and favor their policies and.... ban the rest." Since the offensiveness of speech is mainly subjective, the attempt to regulate it is deeply problematic. 

Free speech allows minorities to speak out against any and all types of injustices that they are experiencing. It also protects groups that engage in counter-protest. The Angels, Patriot Riders, and hate-hackers are just a few examples. 

Theirs is a powerful lesson that recalls the words of the political philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill stated that it is necessary to thwart government intervention in our personal affairs, especially when it comes to regulating our thoughts and beliefs, not only because of the “necessary evil” that occurs when government are granted “unnecessary power” but also because individuals can often make greater and more meaningful changes when the government steps aside. The brand of civil action employed by these groups illustrates the practical part of the political (and moral) education of a free people.




Daniels, Jessie – the author of “White Lies”

Deal, Scott W. – Patriot Guard Riders, New York State Chapter

Fulco, Adrienne – Trinity College, Hartford, CT

Hinds, Patrick – co-author of “The Whole World Was Watching”

Yeung, Miriam – LGBT Community Center, New York City



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United-states United States 2006


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