Over spring break seven VOICE staffers travelled to the 2011 College Media Advisers convention in New York City. The convention was attended by more than a thousand students and advisers from journalism programs across the country.
Days were filled with lectures and workshops on new media and journalism from some of the most prominent names in the business including keynote speakers such as long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas, and Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker Judith Ehrlich. One keynote speaker, however, stood out from the others; this was Margie Phelps, a member of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.
Although some convention attendees seemed to feel the presentation was a useful and visceral way to understand First Amendment free speech rights, in the opinion of the VOICE, having Phelps come to CMA was ill-advised and inappropriate.
If you aren’t familiar with Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church, they are the group that has gotten attention for protesting the funerals of American soldiers who perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. They believe that because the military now allows gays to serve openly, each soldier killed is God’s way of punishing America. Regardless of whether the fallen soldier was gay or straight, they show up at funerals with signs that read things like “GOD HATES FAGS” and “PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS.”
The Westboro Baptist Church, with its handful of members, recently won a major Supreme Court case ensuring their legal right to protest.
While we certainly recognize the connection between journalism’s fundamental interest in the First Amendment and Westboro’s court victory, we were stunned that Phelps was invited to speak at the CMA convention.
“Hell yeah, I’m giving [Phelps] a platform. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to give people in the news a platform,” said Michael Koretzky, the director of the convention, in a recent interview with the VOICE.
To elevate Phelps to the same level as Judith Ehrlich and Helen Thomas, and to give her a platform to spew her vitriol may have provided a lesson in self control to some in the audience, but did not inspire nuanced critical thinking about free speech. It did not inspire nor did it instruct; it only provoked. In that sense it missed the point of the convention entirely.
“College students often consider themselves the edgiest people in the world. To me, the added bonus was watching a bunch of college students get shocked out of their current mindsets. Edgy is what we saw there,” Koretzky said.
It wasn’t edgy, it was racist, homophobic, and after a certain point it was so bad it was just boring. Phelps is delusional. At one point telling she told audience “I am not trying to stop a homosexual from being a homosexual, I am just telling you that sin is taking you to hell, I am telling you that as a friend, yeah your best friend, your BFF up in here.”
Several attendees compared Phelps to Hitler. Koretzky responded to that saying “One advisor asked me if I’d give Adolf Hitler a platform, and I say if he’d had a Supreme Court decision about media ten days earlier, hell yeah.” Well, Adolph Hitler is dead, and so is Margie Phelps’ relevance. The Supreme Court case was clear cut; Phelps’s “hurtful speak” –as the Supreme Court calls it– is protected by the First Amendment. That does not mean it deserved a platform at CMA.
Perhaps the most vexing issue to us as journalists was the question of who exactly we were supposed to be in the lecture hall during the Phelps speech. Was it supposed to illuminate us in the way that the other lectures of the day did? Or were we merely there to witness something vile and have to live with it? Is that useful in itself? We don’t think so. Many of us left early and wished we’d boycotted it altogether, as many students did, even though the venue was filled.