Courtney Boggs | Reporter
Joey Stipek | Reporter
Joseph Thai came to witness the First Amendment in action Thursday during dueling protests at the National Weather Center in Norman.
On one side of a the protest of a steel guardrail blocking was six members of the Westboro Baptist Church. On the other side of the barricade almost 20 feet away, protesters made up of nearly 100 community members including University of Oklahoma faculty, staff and students.
Westboro church members waved picket signs emblazoned with messages such as “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates the Media” as members of the Society of Environmental Journalists were allowed through the barrier to tour the weather center. Counter protesters waved signs reading
“God Hates Fog” and “Today’s Forecast: Rainbows,” a not-so-subtle reference to the gay and lesbian symbol.
Thai, the Presidential Professor and Glenn R. Watson Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, wasn’t sure what to expect of the protests. But he said the popular or unpopular speech of the protestors was a core function of the First Amendment’s protection of the United States Constitution.
“The wonderful thing about the First Amendment does not only do it protect the right of people to express their views, it protects the right for people to disagree with them, both in the private and public square,” Thai said.
Thai said the litmus test for the First Amendment not as our society’s willingness under the law to protect popular speech, but rather to protect unpopular speech that people despise.
“They [the Westboro Baptist Church] are the canary in the cage. If we don’t allow their speech, then there is no point in having the First Amendment,” Thai said.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church representative, criticized the media’s reporting when it came to the church’s overall message. “Of course you say it’s hate speech because we’ve come to those days where the Lord God has judicially has blinded you so you will not hear his word,” Phelps-Roper said.
She also criticized how the media in general reports weather information in a press conference before she left the National Weather Center.
“Every reporter with their mouth to the discussion says it’s Mother Nature. They give the glory to God to that fat-ass, false prophet, false God, Mother Nature,” Phelps-Roper said.
Thai was pleased to see media members ranging from the local city newspaper, student journalists and an Oklahoma City television station were there to witness the protest.
“Part of the value of having a robust First Amendment is so the citizenry is informed about public issues and public concern. Without the media here, a large segment of the university community would not know the protest is going on,” Thai said.
One member of the counter-protesters Zara Keith, a second year foreign exchange student from Sweden, said she had to witness the Westboro Baptist Church protest in person. Keith put witnessing one of their church protests on her bucket list of things to do while studying abroad in America.
“It’s an interesting thing to see. It’s such a spectacle I think. Their views are so outrageous that you can’t help but be fascinated by it,” Keith said.