Should Ferris High School Have to Cancel School for the Westboro Baptist Church Protest?

The Westboro Baptist Church protested outside nearby schools today.  See article.  In response, Ferris High School closed early. Was this the right thing to do?  Shouldn’t the police prohibit any protest that would be so close as to disrupt a public secondary school?

Here is the background: If you don’t already know, the Westboro Baptist Church is a small group out of Topeka Kansas that thinks homosexuals are destroying our country, and feels that God is punishing the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuals by killing American soldiers overseas.  The church has outraged many Americans by protesting nearby military funeral with signs that read “God hates Fags”, “Thank God for IEDs”, “Thank God for dead Soldiers”, “Semper Fag” etc.  In response, there have been large counter-protests staged.  A group call the Patriot Guard Riders follow the Westboro protests at funerals and try to drown out the protesters with their loud motorcycles.  The Westboro Baptist Church has been sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress by families of deceased veterans.  Albert Snyder, the father of a young man killed in Iraq in 2006, sued and won $500,000.  However, the appellate court overturned the jury award on appeal, and the case is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The oral arguments have been held, and it looks like the court is poised to rule that the particular protest that Mr. Snyder sued over was protected by the First Amendment.  Part of the problem with the  case is that the Westboro protest was 1000 feet away from the funeral, and the funeral wasn’t actually disrupted.  More on that case here.  Meanwhile, today in Spokane the church wasn’t protesting at any funerals, rather the church singled out locals schools.  The protestors visited Gonzaga, Whitworth, EWU, and Ferris High School.  Check out this YouTube video of the Spokane protests.

According to the Spokesman-Review article, “Ferris High School students were released from school before the Westboro members arrived to avoid congestion from all of the protesters, said Terren Roloff, Spokane Public Schools spokeswoman. Administrators also did not want students to have to be exposed to the church’s hateful and offensive messages as they left, she said.”
In my opinion, the police should have set up a perimeter around Ferris High School in which protestors were not allowed. Under court precedent, the government is permitted to take measures to prevent disruption of classes for children in public schools. In this state, school attendance is compulsory. See RCW 28A.225.010. Additionally, under Article 9, Section 1 of our state constitution, public education is a right for children.  So while, the society may have to put up with raucous protests near universities, such is not the case of our secondary schools.  Under the “captive audience doctrine” the government can protect people from having to listen to disturbing messages while they are “stuck” in school, on the job, at job centers, and occasionally even at their home.  Different rules apply there than in a town square, a park, or random street corner.  “Captive” listeners have a recognizable privacy interest in avoiding unwanted communication where “the degree of captivity makes in impractical for the unwilling viewer or auditor to avoid exposure.”  Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703, 718 (2000).  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that it is appropriate to consider that a public school consists of an audience that is “essentially captive and composed of impressionable adolescents…” Nurre v. Whitehead, 580 F.3d 1087, 1094 (2009).

For more news on the protest at Ferris High School see here. What do you think? The Westboro Baptist Church does an average of 6 protests per day. Should we really have to cancel school days just for them?

6 Responses to “Should Ferris High School Have to Cancel School for the Westboro Baptist Church Protest?”

  • matt slagle:

    Seems a bit extreme that these protests are occurring in the areas they are. I surprised that District #81 didn’t set up a perimeter to keep the protests from interfering with the normal school day.

  • matt slagle:

    Really if they’re doing an average of 6 protests a day, our public education system shouldn’t accomidate there protest. I couldn’t help but notice the irony between the signs during the protest. Many of the Westboro signs are contradictory to the message in the bible. I beleive at my first day of mass here in Missoula our priest’s homily was about everybody, no matter what your orientation or social status may be, being accepted by God. In my opinion, this grooup is far too radical, and they’re abusing their first amendment right by holding their protests in some of the locations they have.

  • David Klingensmith:

    My name is David Klingensmith from Republic Washington and PROUDLY submit the following;

    MAY GOD BLESS OUR TROOPS! To give your life in defense of our Nation is the highest price and honor a service member can provide to his or her Country. To single out our fallen to promote their cause is disgraceful!


  • Frank Cronin:

    Given the “captive audience” finding sited, parents of students at both Ferris and Adams elementary (as I know they were disrupted by the event) should sue the westboro church. Why does that not happen? Spokane has nothing if not an abundance of hungry lawyers ready to make a name for themselves… beat this group at their game… maybe an interesting “project” for G.U. law students?

  • Steve Graham:

    Thanks for your comments guys. I think everyone know people who are homophobic, or judgmental in one way or another, but these westboro protests are so nuts you just can’t believe your eyes! Yes, we shouldn’t have to shut down our highschools. Adults in our society can be expected to put up with a lot more than kids that are studying.

  • Emily Rice:

    I know that there was a very minor disruption at Gonzaga because of the protest. But Gonzaga’s primary reaction was to have a counter protest in front of the administration building that included speeches from the newly inaugurated president McCulloh and ASB president, as well as “Justice Day” events to remind GU that we are a community and that we do accept everyone.
    Concerning the cancellation of school at Ferris though, while only six, I believe, people from WBC came to protest at the various Spokane locations more than 700 counter protesters followed them around during the day.
    Six people, even with a loud hateful message are easily ignored for all intents and purposes. 706 people on a busy street are another story though. Especially because Ferris is on a pretty small block of land. And while any protesters (WBC or otherwise) would be arrested if they stepped onto GU or Whitworth land, I’m not sure if the same rules applied to the Moody Bible Church or Ferris.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking:
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