The scenes were polar opposites on a cold, rainy day at Duke.
At an intersection just past the edge of campus, three members of the Westboro Baptist Church stood in the rain, waving hateful and apocalyptic signs at cars and passersby.
Meanwhile, at Duke Law School’s Star Commons, scores of law students stopped by a table throughout the afternoon, writing letters of encouragement to those who needed them. The aromas of Café De Novo mingled with the chatter of students busy writing notes on colored paper.
To provide a counter to the WBC protest, law students decided that instead of counterprotesting, they would promote inclusion and positivity. Hosted by OutLaw, the Law School’s LBGTQ+ affinity group, the event raised money for the LGBTQ Center of Durham as well as Legal Aid of North Carolina. At the event, students were presented with a list of people from the website More Love Letters to write hopeful and encouraging messages for, and their letters were sent to those strangers through the website.
“It was really nice. We got a lot of letters for each person who we had on the list. Some of them are so beautiful—kids sat down, students sat down and took so much time crafting really beautiful notes,” said President of OutLaw Bobby DeNault, a second-year law student.
Deemed “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the WBC came to Durham Monday to protest First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams calling their speech “outrageous, mean-spirited, harmful” at a Law School event in late October.
WBC members sought to protest directly at Duke, but the University prohibits outside groups from protesting on campus, so they picketed on the corner of Towerview Road and Erwin Road instead.
After a student noticed that the WBC planned on coming to Duke, DeNault noted that everyone was shocked and angered. Leaders of around 10 law student organizations met to discuss whether they wanted to plan any action in response. DeNault said that the group decided it wasn’t worth giving them more attention or fuel for their hatred by confronting them in person.
The idea for the alternative response came from Nicole Ligon, Law School ‘16 and lecturing fellow at the Law School. Ligon, also a supervising attorney of the First Amendment Clinic, moderated the event where Abrams condemned the WBC’s speech. She noted that she had protested the WBC when she was in college, which strengthened her convictions against hate.
“Part of why we have the First Amendment is that even though offensive speech is allowed, we get to see where the sentiment of society lies when people respond to that speech,” Ligon said. “There's such an overwhelming outcry of support for these organizations—for Legal Aid, for the LGBTQ+ Center of Durham. There's so much positivity toward those organizations that it shows the sentiment doesn't rest with the WBC. It lies elsewhere."
DeNault’s favorite part of the event was seeing students appearing in solidarity and then connecting with someone from More Love Letters whose story resonated with them.
“Just watching complete strangers spend time writing notes of love to people going through tough times on a really personal level was just a really nice way to spend the afternoon and made us forget that we weren't there to do this randomly," he said.
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