After learning that a group of religious extremists planned to picket the funerals of Arizona shooting victims -- starting with the services for 9-year-old Christina Green -- Toronto rock radio station 102.1 The Edge offered them airtime on the Dean Blundell show yesterday in exchange for calling off the protest.
The Phelps family and their Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Chuch is known for protesting at funerals for fallen soldiers with signs that read "Thank God for IEDs" and "God killed your son", claiming their god is punishing the country for tolerating homosexuality. They recently defended themselves against a $2.9 million invasion of privacy lawsuit filed by the father of a dead U.S. soldier.
Margie Phelps, right, and Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, via CTV News)
The family also claims the Arizona shooting was a punishment from their god, protesting with signs reading "God sent the shooter."
The station's controversial move sparked debate about the ethics of offering the extremists a platform for their hate-filled views.
The Toronto Star interviewed Carleton University j-prof and Star columnist Allan Thompson about Blundell's interview with Shirley Phelps-Roper:
“Maybe for the host of a radio show it seems like a personal gesture that might spare a family more grief, but journalistically it just doesn’t meet any standard,” Thompson said Thursday night.
"It might not be the best comparison, he added, but giving the church a platform conjures up memories of the CBC agreeing to have a “manifesto” from the separatist extremist group Front de libération du Québec read on television during the October crisis of 1970."
Three U.S. radio shows put out similar offers to the Phelps family. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Againsts Defamation urged the shows to rescind their offers, suggesting the shows have "decided to cave to blackmail tactics and reward one of our nation's most anti-American groups. Such action only incentivizes groups like Westboro with an opportunity to broadcast their hate to millions."
Blundell told the Star he "would do it again in a second." He said Corus Entertainment, which owns the station, “was okay with it because Corus Entertainment is run by people with humanity. We were able to help a little girl’s family grieve her loss and we were able to do that by allowing a lunatic on the air to talk about why she thinks it happened."
It should be noted that this isn't the first time Phelps-Roper has been on the show, CTV notes she is a "semi-regular guest" on the program "where her hardline right-wing views were played for laughs for the show's largely left-leaning audience." Blundell used his existing relationship to entice her to the deal, he told CTV:
"I said, 'I'll let you say whatever you want to say. You can spew whatever religious rhetoric you like, you can talk about how terrific it is on our morning show ... if you agree not to protest the funeral,' and she agreed."
Blundell also told CTV:
"I think we have a bigger responsibility, not just to Canadians, but we've got a responsibility to the rest of the world as broadcasters to be able to try and make a difference somehow. That little girl didn't have a chance. If we can offer up some radio time and let [Phelps-Roper] talk silliness, we're more than happy to do it if she promises not to hurt anybody."
The Star also spoke with Osgoode Hall Law School professor Jamie Cameron, who says that, while "distasteful", there is not law in the U.S. prohibiting funeral picketing. Her Osgoode prof colleague Alan Young tells the Star that he's a "big fan of letting the lunatics get access to the airways, in limited measure. The harder a fringe group tries to be heard, the more they expose the absurdity of their position.”
“And the bottom line is, that is how democracies and free speech work,” he said. “You expose the falsity of a position by exposing them to the light of day.”
Jan. 19: This story was updated to correct minor spelling errors.