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Free to damn Matthew? Fred Phelps's plan to erect a monument in Casper, Wyo., to celebrate Matthew Shepard's "damnation" has caused a constitutional battle over the limits of free speech.

Officials in Casper, Wyo., home to the burial site of gay murder victim Matthew Shepard, have recently been grappling with two big issues: free speech and hate. At press time they were scrambling to prevent the installation of a monument in a public park that would celebrate the date that Shepard "entered hell."

The monument's sponsor is notorious antigay pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., who has long traveled the country with his family, setting up pickets to declare God's hatred for gay people, including a demonstration at Shepard's 1998 funeral.

"The city council as well as probably everyone, or most everyone, in the community is very much opposed to having [Phelps's] monument placed not only in a city park but anywhere in the community," said city manager Thomas Forslund.

But Phelps appears to have a powerful ally: the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Wyoming. Phelps cited rulings in Utah cases in 1999 and 2002 that require equal access to public property under the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Because a privately sponsored monument to the Ten Commandments sits in the same Casper park Phelps's argument goes, the city council must open the park to his.

Brian M. Barnard, a Salt Lake City civil rights attorney who argued the two Utah cases, said Phelps has a solid case. "Even offensive people who want to say offensive things are protected by the First Amendment," he said.

To counter Phelps, the city council has been forced to consider forbidding all private displays in the park--a uniform standard that would not infringe on free speech rights. The commandments monument would then be removed. If the city elects to fight it out in court, said Phelps, he has the will and the resources to wage a lengthy battle. "Those government officials out there are trying to do an end run around the First Amendment," he said. "It's not going to work."

Phelps added that if his monument is banned from the park, he'll consider buying a private plot in Casper on which to place it. Set to he completed in mid November, the six-foot granite structure will be emblazoned with a photo of Shepard and the inscription MATTHEW SHEPARD ENTERED HELL OCTOBER 12, 1998, AT AGE 21 IN DEF1ANCE OF GOD'S WARNING.
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Title Annotation:Far Right
Author:Ryan, Benjamin
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U8WY
Date:Nov 25, 2003
Previous Article:Rants & raves.
Next Article:Discord in the choir.

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