When I was growing up, my parents would regularly remind me how lucky my brother and I were to live in a country where protest was as acceptable (and remains so) as it was — in Communist Romania, people marching the streets with signs jeering President Ceaucescu would have been arrested. People who marched down the street jeering then President Clinton would face no such problem as was evidenced by all the people calling for his resignation during the Lewinsky scandal that seemed to rock the United States for awhile.
Consider now the case of the Westboro Baptist Church — they are no strangers to the notion of protest as they have demonstrated hundreds of times at funerals and other solemn occasions. They first came to my attention (and, indeed, national attention) when they protested at the funeral of Matthew Shephard, a young man who was beaten and left for dead tied to a fence on a country road because he was gay. The Westboro members came to the funeral with signs indicating they felt Matthew was burning in Hell for his sins and that he was a big sinner and it was good of G-d to effectively kill him.
In the many years that have passed since this protest there have been numerous efforts to stop their protests, all of which have failed on the basis of the group’s protests being protected under free speech laws. What has been generally more effective, however, has been the protesting of the protestors — surely to the dismay of said protestors. There are different ways in which the WBC has been a target of protest, some more effective than others.
The first, and funniest sort of counter protest is when people turn up to the protests with funny signs of their own. You can see some examples of these signs here. There are signs that specifically reply to Westboro signs (“Soldiers rock!” as a response to the ones thanking G-d for dead soldiers) and those that just mock them (“G-d hates tiny fuzzy kittens” as a response to the multiple signs stating everything that they purport that G-d hates) and the silly (The two men posing for a photo wearing shirts that say “He’s” on one and “Gay” on the other.
Another kind of counter-protest is more related to specifically when a soldier’s funeral that is being protested. These counter protests are less protests in nature and more of a sort of protection — a shield, so to speak. Organizations like the Patriot Guard Riders get invited to military funerals where they show up in full uniform and stand around the perimeter of the funeral procession and make sure that the mourners do not see any upsetting sights such as people holding signs that say that their son was killed as a punishment from G-d, G-d forbid.
In what seems like the most odd counter protest, members of the also controversial Ku Klux Klan (known for their own brand of hatred and discrimination) have clashed with the Church on occasion, bringing two brute forces together — it intrigued me to read about this protest even with all of the negativity associated with the Klan.
Ultimately, despite some misperceptions about what free speech means, the Westboro Baptist Church will continue protesting and therefore the good people who disagree with their vitriolic message must continue to protest back.