IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Free speech, hate speech clash

Five years after student Matthew Shepard was killed, touching off a national dialogue on gay rights, an anti-gay hate group wants to put up a monument in Shepard’s hometown to his murder.
/ Source: NBC News

Five years after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was killed, touching off a national dialogue on gay rights, an anti-gay hate group wants to put up a monument to Shepard’s murder in his hometown. The city doesn’t want it, but it is caught in a legal tangle that involves, of all things, the Ten Commandments.

At SHepard's funeral in his hometown of Casper, Wyo., an anti-gay hate group demonstrated in a park across the street, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister from Kansas.

Now members of Phelps’ group are back in Casper pushing to be allowed to put up a granite monument in the same park where they picketed at Shepard’s funeral.

The proposed monument would say, “Matthew Shepard entered Hell, October 12, 1998.”

That was the day that Shepard, 21, died of injuries and hypothermia he suffered five days before when two men beat him with a gun butt and left him to die while tied to a fence post in zero-degree weather, after meeting him at a bar in Laramie. Both of the men were later convicted.

“Our message is a message of God’s hate, not human hate,” said Marge Phelps, the reverend’s wife, also of the Westboro, Kan., Baptist Church. “And the concept of God’s hate is found in the Bible. And all it means is that people are going to go to hell if they disobey God.”

The city of Casper, home to about 50,000 residents, wants to say no but may not be able to.

The city park where the anti-gay group wants to put the Shepard monument already has a monument, this one honoring the Ten Commandments from the Bible. And under the law, if the city wants to keep this Shepard monument out, then the Ten Commandments will have to go, too.

Why? Because, legal experts say, the city unwittingly invited other monuments when it put up the Ten Commandments in a public park.

“By putting the Ten Commandments in the park, they created a sort of public forum for speech and debate,” said Tom Goldstein, a First Amendment attorney and appellate court lawyer. “And once the city does that, it can’t discriminate against other viewpoints, no matter how hateful.”

Casper Mayor Barb Peryam said she was offended by the Kansas group’s tactic. “The fact that Reverend Phelps, or Mr. Phelps, would come into Casper and try and put that filth under the guise of the Ten Commandments is total idiocy.”

Bob Crosby, president of the local Eagles Club, which donated the Ten Commandments, said the Eagles reluctantly offered the city a way out: “We would hope they would donate it back to us, and we can display it in an appropriate place.”

Now the city council must decide what to do about this monument, concerned that the Ten Commandments could be used to force the city into accepting a message of hate.

Pete Williams is NBC News’ chief justice correspondent.