Why journalists love Westboro Baptist

Actually, the headline on the top of this post should say, "Why so many mainstream journalists are biting their lips and showing reluctant support for the fundamentalists -- self proclaimed, fitting Associated Press style -- from Westboro Baptist Church." But that wouldn't fit very well in our format. It goes without saying that there is too much coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court sessions about Westboro Baptist (surf this) to deal with in a single GetReligion post, especially one written quickly while I prepare to split town for a speaking gig.

Here is what I can do for you.

Strangely enough, I can point readers once again to an excellent Time piece on the core issues in this case that, sadly, is still not available in its entirety on the magazine's website. I will continue to watch to see if and when the text is posted.

Ironically, the key element of that article, from my point of view, is its emphasis on secular issues, not religious issues. You cannot understand this case without grasping the fact that the members of the Westboro legal team -- once again, a wave of folks related to the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. -- have been willing to follow whatever laws local authorities throw at them, in terms of the locations of their protests.

These folks have a modus operandi and they know how to use it. They do legal protests that make a wide variety of people so mad (justifiably so) that they file lawsuits. The church then wins the lawsuits and collects the legal fees. Rinse, wash, blow dry. Repeat.

Phelps and his crew know that they will draw media coverage. For them, that's the exposure that matters. They get to stand in front of cameras and shout, "God damn America" (as opposed to "God bless America").

Thus, here is what I want GetReligion readers to do.

Go out in your front yard -- literally, or digitally -- and grab your local newspaper. Read the Westboro story that you will find there.

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father's only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church's website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

For my local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, this is literally a local story, for two reasons. The emphasis is, as it should be, on the family of the U.S. Marine from Maryland. Then there is the scene at the Supreme Court.

While members of Westboro Baptist Church waved a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday thanking God for dead soldiers, the nine justices inside tried to define the line at which such public protests become personal attacks during arguments in an emotionally charged case prompted by the picketing of a Maryland Marine's funeral.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was 20 years old when he was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, publicity-seeking members of the fire-and-brimstone Kansas congregation -- all strangers to the Snyders -- appeared at his family's Catholic funeral service in Westminster with posters proclaiming sentiments like "God Hates America" and "Semper Fi Fags." They later posted online a diatribe blaming Snyder's death on the sins of the country and his divorced parents.

Snyder's father sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and initially won, though the multimillion-dollar verdict was overturned on appeal. That series of legal decisions vaulted the Maryland case to the country's highest court, where it's testing the boundaries of the First Amendment and putting liberal free-speech advocates in the position of siding with fringe Christians. ...

The case put several specific questions before the court -- addressing the rights of private versus public figures, whether free speech is more important than freedom of religion and peaceful assembly, and whether a funeral constitutes a captive audience that needs protection from certain communication. But at its heart are issues of intellectual freedom and human decency.

Actually, the church believes that it's religious freedom is at stake, too. So there are claims of religious liberty on both sides.

The Sun story covers most of the bases that must be covered (although, strangely enough, Pastor Phelps loses "The Rev." in front of his name somewhere along the way).

Finally, toward the end, readers are offered this description of the actual event at the heart of this case:

Five days after Matthew Snyder was killed, the Phelpses sent out a news release warning his father and the authorities that they planned to picket the Westminster service at the "St. John's Catholic dog kennel." The funeral procession was rerouted, a SWAT team brought in, and a team of motorcyclists shielded the funeral-goers from viewing Westboro members.

But Snyder knew they were there, and later saw them on television and read their online diatribe, which the group called an "epic," against his son.

While it is accurate to note that the "funeral procession was rerouted," it is also crucial to note that the media-friendly demonstration was moved away from the Catholic church and that the Westboro activists honored that decision by civic officials. The family saw the protesters only in mainstream news reports -- a big issue for defenders of freedom of the press.

Thus, there were only two ways to avoid the pain caused by the demonstrators -- ban the protests, even on public cites chosen by civic officials, or ban media coverage of the protests. These are high hurdles for any justices who want, literally, to justify the silencing of these very bizarre religious believers.

So, what was in your local news? Did the reports tell you what you needed to know to understand this case? Once again, stick to the journalism issues.

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