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The protest that never was

Westboro protests irrelevant to Judy Shepard, about 50 students congregate for counter protest

POSTED AT 12:27 AM ON Oct. 23, 2013  (UPDATED AT 04:01 PM ON Oct. 23, 2013)

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As the rain fell outside the Whittenberger Auditorium, there was no shouting, no name-calling, no picket signs.

Judy Shepard couldn’t help but feel relieved.

Mostly for the speech attendees — that none of them would have to endure the Westboro Baptist Church.

The group has drawn heated criticism in the last decade given its extreme views — particularly its adamant intolerance of homosexuality.

Members of the congregation, lead by Pastor Fred Phelps, have attracted national attention in the past for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers and viciously condemning homosexuality.

The group originally scheduled a protest to take place outside of Shepard’s speech Tuesday evening at the Indiana Memorial Union.

They call her the “fag pimp.” They’ve begun tweeting at her.

Not that it mattered, Shepard said.

Shepard didn’t pay attention to them when they picketed her son’s funeral 15 years ago, and she doesn’t pay attention to them now.

Matthew’s case put them in the spotlight, Shepard said, and they thrive from it. Eventually, they’ll move on.

“I don’t give them any credit or any power over anything I do,” Shepard said, not even blinking. “They’re lower than the stuff I scrape off the bottom of my shoe.”

Matthew Shepard was the victim of an apparent hate-crime-related murder in 1998 near Laramie, Wyo., when he was 21 years old.

Pistol-whipped, bound and beaten, Matthew was left to die tied to a fence post.

Since Matthew’s murder, the Matthew Shepard Act was enacted in 2009. The legislation, also known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanded hate crime law to include criminal acts motivated by actual or perceived gender or sexual identity.

At the Whittenberger Auditorium, the rain continued to spit and temperatures dipped as about 50 students congregated outside the door. Huddled in groups, small talk shifted to speculation. Shepard said the one take-away from the Westboro Baptist appearances are the counter protests they provoke. Students standing together to fight for something that needs to be done.

A half hour passed, and the Westoboro Baptist Church protesters were still a no-show.
“Maybe they’re in disguise,” a man suggested to his group of friends.

Or maybe they’ll take everyone by surprise and erupt in the quiet of the auditorium when nobody expects it, another said, “and, like, set the place on fire.”

Measures were taken on behalf of IU to ensure the planned would-be protest did not spiral out of control.

IU police officers were stationed both inside the building and outside where students gathered to greet the Westboro Baptist Church members.

“Their message is abhorrent,” Mark Land, associate vice president of IU Communications said. “It’s hate speech, and there’s really no way around it.”

But they had every right to be there. If free speech is going to mean anything, Land said, you have to let the hate mongers have their say.

Soon, 50 would-be counter protestors became 20. And then nobody was left standing out in the cold.

The speech was about to begin, and the doors opened.

The picket signs were nowhere in sight.

 

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