Westboro Baptist Church, dubbed “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, will demonstrate at noon on Monday on the corner of Erwin Road and Towerview Road, according to Steve Drain, spokesperson for the church.
The notorious anti-LGBTQ+ hate group originally planned to “preach” at Duke Law School, but Duke, citing a university policy barring outside demonstrations on campus, told them they weren’t welcome.
The new location is just at the edge of Duke’s campus, a short walk from the Law School.
More than a dozen student organizations, including Blue Devils United and Duke Student Government, signed a letter of solidarity obtained by The Chronicle “to those affected by this hate group and other groups like them.”
“Although this act of hate is a very visible manifestation of the larger issues of homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy, we want to emphasize that this is not an isolated incident,” the letter said of the planned demonstration. “It is indicative of the greater need to work against all manifestations of these forces in our daily lives.”
Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan., says it has conducted more than 65,000 demonstrations against "sin" since 1991. The group condemns homosexuality, which it says is a “sin at the forefront of the moral crisis in this nation,” and claims that “God hates Jews.”
So why come to Duke?
Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, spoke at the School of Law in late October. At the talk, Abrams discussed the breadth of free speech protections in the United States and noted a Supreme Court ruling that found that the group’s "offensive and outrageous speech" outside of a military funeral was allowed under U.S. law.
It’s a battle the group will have to wage off of Duke’s campus. Science Drive and Towerview Road near the School of Law are private property, Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, noted, pointing to Duke’s policy against non-Duke demonstrations occurring on campus.
He also condemned displays of hatred in an email to The Chronicle.
“We are resolute in our support for respect and inclusion for all members of the Duke community,” Schoenfeld wrote. “These are part of our core values, and we deplore any efforts to intimidate individuals through demonstrations of hatred, bias and homophobia.”
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Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke dean of the School of Law, announced that the church was planning an event in an email to faculty, students and staff Nov. 7. Abrams declined to comment beyond the email, which called the church’s protests hateful.
The student organizations that signed the letter of solidarity opted not to hold a counterprotest.
“This group is empowered by being given a platform to spread their hate,” the letter states.
“Despite the anger many of us feel at their presence, we will not be hosting a counter protest. We hope that, in doing so, we further deplatform them and remove the means by which they can spread messages of hatred and intolerance.”
Blue Devils United President and sophomore Emma Cairns told The Chronicle that giving attention to a "hate group" like the church only helps them, in that "it gives them the attention of people who they can then spew hate at.”
“By choosing not to counterprotest, we hope to send the message that their hateful rhetoric is not only something we disagree with, but that it's not even worth hearing in the first place,” Cairns said.
The groups that signed the letter were Blue Devils United, the Black Student Alliance, the Duke Chapter of the NAACP, Mi Gente—Duke’s Latinx Student Association—the International Association, The Bridge, Duke Student Government, The Archive, Baldwin Scholars, Multicultural Greek Council, National Pan-Hellenic Council, the Hindu Students Association and the Asian American Alliance.