He showed the world the ugliness of hate and the importance of free speech.
Fred Phelps, the founder of the small, Kansas-based, homophobic Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) died Thursday. The unaffiliated Baptist church is known for its vitriolic anti-gay campaigns held at military funerals. It's website is even named GodHatesFags.
Many seem to be rejoicing over Phelps death, but we should be mourning because Phelps and his vile ideology helped shine a light on the true evil of bigotry and homophobia. The WBC has spurred people to sympathize with and rally behind the LGBT movement. He left the opposite legacy of what he intended.
Conservatives and liberals united in a common revulsion to the racism and homophobia of the church. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly even offered to pay the $16,510 in fees ordered by the Fourth Circuit, to help a family that was fighting the WBC in court.
Phelps also left a positive free speech legacy, winning a United States Supreme Court case which held 8-1 that the First Amendment protect public protestors against tort liability. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations filed amicus briefs in support of Phelps' free speech rights. No matter how hateful and despicable an ideology is, the right to free speech is a cornerstone of a free and open society. We don't need to ban or censor hateful speech, because the real solution is marginalizing hateful ideology through truth.
At the end of the day we should be grateful to the WBC and Phelps for helping to marginalize hate by showing the true ugliness of racism and homophobia. The subtle bigotry of those opposing equal rights for gay people is far more dangerous than the open bigotry of the WBC, because subtle bigotry deceives people into believing its acceptable.
We should also be grateful to Phelps for helping to reinforce free speech rights in America through the Supreme Courts decision affirming his right to protest. Condemning false speech, not censoring, is the answer to combat hate speech. Freedom of speech is designed to protect all speech, no matter how hateful. Protecting any speech, protects all speech. In the end, allowing Phelps to spew hate speech has done more good than bad in exposing the evil of bigotry.
Let's tip our hats to this freakishly homophobic preacher.
This article was originally published in USA TODAY, March 23, 2014.