Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Examining a meme: Is the Westboro Baptisit Church really a scam?

Folks are speculating that the Anonymous v. Phelps battle may simply be a publicity stunt by the Phelps clan. Certainly possible, for they love the attention. Others read further into the church's motivations and suspect that WBC was egging on Anonymous with the hope of suing for damages. Cory Doctorow at boingboing is of this camp. He writes,
I believe it. Close observers of the "Church" have opined that Phelps and his family have no particular strong beliefs, but that rather they are aggressive litigants who use shock tactics to lure private individuals and local police and governments into attacking them or abridging their rights. The family then brings lucrative civil action against all parties. It sounds like a sweet little racket if you're an utter sociopath.
The link he uses to support his claims is one that has been mentioned a lot in the blogosphere, mostly minor blogs by random nobodies like I, but also in popular, respected blogs such as Pharyngula. The link is most often found in the comments section of numerous blogs and news articles, for it seems that some are pushing this meme rather hard.

But, what does the article say? That Fred Phelps is a con man.
It's a business. They travel the country, set up websites telling you exactly when they'll be there, and using the most inflammatory statements all over the place, just to get someone to violate their rights for profit. Then they sue the military, the police force that was to protect them, and everyone that is around them for money. This is a sham, and it is a trap to get people sued. Every member of his family is an attorney. Phelps does not break the law. What he does is try to make you break the law by trying to punch your sensibilities about everything you hold dear, and then sue you and everyone municipality around him to the max.
The writer knows this for a fact because he is a journalist, and has seen the Phelps clan in action.
How do I know that Fred Phelps is suing people? I can tell you I just have too much experience around him. I am a journalist in Nashville, TN, and work at a television station that works the Ft. Campbell area. As a television photographer and journalist, I have been trained in all of the rules of private property, verbal conversation, what is legal and what is not legal, etc. (what you can and cannot say, what you can get away with). Honestly, in the last few months, I have seen waaay too much of Mr. Phelps and his crew. Since the war began, I believe they think this is the moneymaking source of a lifetime.

So how am I sure? After the third run in, and not one slip, not one piece of paperwork out of line, I knew something was fishy. My newsman skepticism left me with the idea later that something was more phishy than fishy.
I will tell you where I got this truth about Phelps. I looked him in the eye. I saw that he was way too calm and collected for what he looked like in the media. I noticed that he never made personal statements against a person, which is verbal assault, and an out against a lawsuit. Also, for a religious fanatic, a group of people who pride themselves on personal attacks, he was running a protest so terribly by the books that I was impressed by it. He will not bait a person, ever. He will not make personal attacks. He will make blanket statements. He will look at a person in the crowd that he thinks is gay, walk over to his stack of signs, pull out the appropriate, well designed, easily read, laminated bright board, and hold it up and loudly proclaim that "gays are going to hell" or some such nonsense, and make eye contact, but he will never cross the line of telling that person that they're going to hell. That would be the part that would screw up the lawsuit. He just wants to get them after him, but wants to appear utterly blameless for damages.
The writer offers zero actual evidence for his claims. I would think that a journalist would be able to cite specific court cases to back up his claims, like a journalist would, but the writer cites none. He offers nothing but suspicions supported by a gut feeling.

The article contains a disclaimer at the very top.
Disclaimer: The following was written by the user El_Camino_SS in this thread on, 02/21/2006.
I do not claim to have written this. This was found while browsing and is being reprinted without the consent of the original author, albeit I don't think this person would mind me having it here, I don't want any mistake made that I claim ownership of these words.

I merely agree with them...
Reading the article was enough for me to decide that it had zero worth, but as it has been cited by others, I decided to attempt to find evidence of any lawsuits that WBC may be involved in. But while researching, I found that Jordan Carr of the Standford Review has already done all of the hard work for me. He and Ruthie Arbeiter wrote a series of pieces in advance of a WBC protest at Stanford, and in one he detailed the legal history of Fred Phelps and the WBC. It is detailed, and instead of giving you a summary, I suggest you read the whole thing. He closes with,
All in all, it seems that the Phelpses use the courts more as a weapon than a means of earning a living–although I frankly have no idea how they can support themselves. Are there family members earning a legitimate living? Do they sustain themselves on donations? One shudders at the thought. I’m not a lawyer, but it does seem that if you should not engage the Phelpses and their affiliates because they will sue you, and that will be annoying, likely resulting in legal bills and a general waste of your time.
So, to sum up, an anonymous writer posts something he found on Fark written by another anonymous writer that makes claims about WBC, but offers zero evidence to support said claims, and this article is being cited as an authoritative source by the likes of PZ Myers and Cory Doctorow, while they fail to mention the piece written by Jordan Carr.

I'm curious why anyone with even just a wee bit of skepticism would take this foolishness at face value.

PS - As a side note, while researching this post, I attempted to check out WBC's website, but it was down. Coincidence, or did Anonymous launch an attack? Curious.

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