Is This the Best Way to Teach the First Amendment? November 4, 2010

Is This the Best Way to Teach the First Amendment?

You’re a college professor and you want to teach your students about the First Amendment.

Is this going too far?

Putting fundamentalists in front of class is nothing new for Tim Boudreau, a Central Michigan University professor known for challenging his media law students each semester with an unpopular guest speaker designed to illustrate the breadth of First Amendment protections.

But the Holland native said he was “surprised as hell” when Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, responded favorably to his e-mailed invitation.

The Phelpses came to campus earlier this week:

Doors to the classroom were locked and guarded by members of the campus police. Only students and guests cleared by Professor Tim Boudreau, who invited them, were allowed inside…

Fruitport senior Kara Eastling walked out of the 5 p.m. session and said she thought the Westboro members were a “good example of intolerance.”

“Honestly, it’s hard to put into words,” she said. “I think it was a good learning experience. It actually makes me feel better about myself. I’m glad I’m not like that.”

Gotta say, as an educator, I find that to be a savvy move.

Students have to learn that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, including speech you may find offensive or blasphemous.

Bringing in the extremists to make that point for you?

The students won’t ever forget it.

(Thanks to Larry for the link!)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Heck ya. I have always been a fan of practical experiments and hands on learning. I always learned the most that way. I think it would of been fantastic to have a class like that, when I was in school.

  • I can’t imagine why anyone would be surprised that media whores like the Phelpses would show up anywhere that they can spew their venom.

    It might be savvy, but I hate that anyone, anywhere gives them time in front of an audience.

  • Wow! I’ve got to say, this is about the only thing WBC is good for. This professor managed to give them a purpose.

  • sc0tt

    Sounds a bit too much like a publicity stunt to me. I think he could have accomplished the same thing somehow without the requirement for security guards.

  • Eliza

    Nah, the security guards were needed. Read the article at the second link. (Short news video there is good, too.)

    The professor gave students the opportunity to opt out. Sounds like the students thought ahead of time what they wanted to ask, and asked some pointed questions (see video at 2nd link) like: isn’t encouraging people to commit suicide (which I guess the Phelps people have done) encouraging them to sin, in their world view?

  • sc0tt

    The security guards were needed because Phelps-Roper was there live. The prof could have shown videos and made the same point to his students.

  • Dan

    Sadly, it’s the wrong audience. If anything, a group of fundamentalists should have been sitting there with a scientist or a Muslim or a homosexual or just about anyone talking to them.

  • Simon

    Wait a second… Just visited Wikipedia. This guy has run in *Democratic* primaries? Wasn’t he standing for the wrong party?

  • Gabriel

    This is a lesson they will never forget. Videos wouldn’t have had the same affect. It wasn’t a required lecture and everyone in the class would be an adult. These are law students and it will make them think. I think this was a good idea.

  • Pluto2

    Thats my school! I had the professor last semester and he is amazing! He hates these groups which is why he brings them in to challenge himself and the students. I was also at the protest raising money for Wounded Warriors and The Human Rights Camping along with the rest of my non-religious RSO Dogma-Free Society. There are only about 10 active members but we do what we can.

  • TheBrummell

    This is excellent. The best way to criticize a group or an individual who expresses views you find distasteful or just disagreeable is to let them voice those views in their own words. Let the fools speak! That way we may know their foolishness. Live is better than recorded, in-person better than through telecommunications.

    How many of the students who viewed this presentation left thinking “Those WBC folks have some great ideas, I think I’ll join them!”. And how many left thinking “Those WBC folks are straight-up crazy, hateful, bigots. I now know why so many people have told me they are wrong, I have seen it for myself.” ?

  • Claudia

    Usually I don’t like the idea of giving attention to the Phelps hive, because from what I’ve read of Nate Phelps they feed off the hatred of others. On the other hand they are walking talking red herrings and are a net plus for gay rights, I think.

    On this occasion I think it was a good cause. Nothing quite like being confronted with totally hateful bile to drive home the point that free speech is content-independent.

  • Hitch

    Only worry I have with this is that people misunderstand the 1st amendment to mean that all speech is not only permissible but also has to be given accommodation and a platform.

    The 1st amendment does not say that at all.

    I like this on other grounds, namely on the grounds of what tolerance/intolerance is and the difference between listening and reacting.

  • Jeanette

    That’s a brilliant idea! And like Jerry Ballwell says above, it’s pretty impressive that that professor gave the WBC a productive purpose.

  • ckitching

    The Phelps are a strange lot. Fred Phelps apparently used to be a major fighter for black civil rights. Today, they’re ostensibly against gay civil rights, but their extreme actions appear to be having the opposite effect as no one wants to express support for them. IMO, they’re forcing a lot of conservative Christians to choose between “supporting the troops” and “supporting the gays”.

  • Nick

    Here’s a thread on reddit where one of the students talks about how he called her out on her illegitimate child:

  • There is no better teacher than experience.

  • Eddie

    This is similar to what we did with the BNP. Let them on Question Time and then everyone can see them for what they are.

  • PJB863

    Best way I can think of to educate young people about groups like WBC! Let WBC come into the school, and “educate” them. Let them have a good gag and puke afterwards. I doubt any of the students would ever think about joining, supporting, or even synmpathizing with WBC after this. Most, if not all, of them probably wanted to go home and shower and wash off with disinfectant afterwards too.

    Finally, a positive use for WBC!

  • fastthumbs

    Excellent. The law proffessor invited one of the staunches defenders the first admendment rights of free speech…

    “Fred Phelps does not believe what he is doing. This is a scam.

    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.”


  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that analysis of the WBC and I can’t tell you how wrong it is. Phelps absolutely believes his own BS. He’s a complete nutjob.

  • muggle

    Meh, I don’t think this was such a good idea. Like someone said above, there’s a difference between allowing free speech and giving it a platform.

    Voluntary, my ass! How many students attended because they didn’t want to piss their professor off by not attending?

    A much better choice would maybe be someone who’s defended a free-speech case, even one of the WBC’s lawyers. To discuss the legalities of free speech rather than give a platform to hate speech.

    I also get a sense of the professor just wants to be outrageous. Seems more a case of look-at-me-itis rather than legitimate teaching.

  • Alice

    The whole point of them is to get attention, why in the world was the professor surprised? They do interviews all the time. If you listen long enough, they sound just like normal Christians.

  • Pluto2

    @Muggle like I said before I had this class last year and the professor doesn’t care if students come or not. He always gives alternative options for students who don’t want to go to this sort of thing. We go because we are interested in learning about opposing views. This is a higher level class students in it aren’t worried about pissing teachers off.

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