A Message Regarding the Westboro Baptist Church and This Week’s Communities for Justice Events

Monday, October 8, 2018

We have recently received word that the Westboro Baptist Church (hereafter, “WBC”) intends to “picket” Gonzaga University near/around Gonzaga’s campus this Thursday, October 11th between 11:45am-12:15pm. As some of you will remember, the WBC previously visited Spokane in 2010 and, as then, their appearance offers us the opportunity to engage in thoughtful discourse and affirm the values that define us as a Jesuit, Catholic and humanistic university.

Having reflected on these matters with colleagues, I want to communicate with you on several issues that I believe we need to consider and share.

  1. The core of the WBC’s activism is a message of hate and fear. The adherents of the WBC have chosen to focus their hatred in particular on our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers; they target college students (whom they perceive to engage in activities that are an affront to God), and military personnel (whose deaths they attribute to God’s retribution for human sinfulness). The WBC’s message gains its power in part because it is delivered in a manner intended to shock, threaten, or offend, eliciting strong reaction thereby. Not infrequently, the targets of their abuse are those who are suffering in some manner already.

  2. A university exists to sponsor and facilitate the search for truth in the context of intellectual (academic) endeavor. The occasion of the WBC picket provides us with an opportunity to respond in a thoughtful and uniquely academic manner regarding numerous dimensions that relate to such an event: hate and its expression; movement politics; Constitutional freedom; and social responsibility, to name a few.

    Gonzaga, as a Jesuit, Catholic and humanistic university, has a special responsibility to actively respond to incidents of hatred and fear and to decisively counteract them. Those of us in Jesuit institutions are called by the Church to serve as beacons of light and hope for all people, particularly those who are frequently marginalized and victimized by society. In so doing, we follow in the footsteps of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who was himself actively engaged in the promotion of justice over four centuries ago. Our well-known and highly regarded sense of community is at times marred by incidents of sexism and sexual violence, ostracism and victimization on the basis of gender, gender orientation, racism, politics, religious beliefs, and socio-economic situation. These are the evils which Jesus Christ addressed, and of which all major religions speak.

  3. The WBC is not welcome on the Gonzaga University campus, and we will not permit them to picket or demonstrate on the private property which the university owns. We can expect them to appear at public rights-of-way, such as around the BARC, along Ruby, or on Spokane Falls Boulevard (near Cincinnati). Through our evaluation of the WBC and its activities in other cities and campuses, we have determined the group is well aware of its constitutional rights and represented by experienced legal counsel. It carefully communicates its plans to the police and media in advance in order to generate reaction, but also to clearly establish its legal right to publicly demonstrate on public property—and works hard to elicit maximum public exposure for its activities. More often than not, the WBC demonstrators are women accompanied by children; rarely are men involved. If WBC pickets are successful in evoking a physical confrontation with opponents, as has occurred, they will sue in the hope of obtaining monetary damages. Thus, the police are often on the scene to protect the peace at WBC demonstrations.

A Call to Action

I call therefore upon the entire Gonzaga community—students, faculty, staff, and administrators—to join me in responding to the voices of fear and hatred by actively taking part in one or more of the justice-oriented events currently being planned this coming week and beyond.

Specifically, on Thursday, October 11, I invite all members of the GU community to wear Gonzaga apparel; and for those who are not in class, who wish to join together in solidarity, to gather from 11:30am-12:30pm in an Interfaith Vigil for Peace, at the Peace Pole on the lawn immediately south of College Hall. Interfaith prayers will be offered. I am looking forward to sharing mine as well.

I would also encourage your participation in:

  • Today (Monday, Oct. 8); 4:30-7:30pm; Hemmingson Ballroom – Community Panel on School Safety with Virginia Tech mass shooting survivor Kristina Anderson (co-sponsored by the Schools of Education and Law). Will be live-streamed at online.gonzaga.edu/streaming.
  • Tuesday, Oct. 9 (tomorrow); 7-8:30pm; Hemmingson Ballroom – Critical Race Theory Today with David Theo Goldberg
  • Friday, Oct. 12; 6:30-8pm; Hemmingson Ballroom – 20th Anniversary of the founding of Gonzaga’s Institute for Hate Studies with featured speaker Nadine Strossen (streamed) and GU panel on The Complexities and Tensions of Free Speech and Caring.

Also occurring this weekend (Saturday, Oct. 13-Sunday Oct. 14) at Gonzaga University is the PNW Students of Color Conference: Reclaiming Our Time (Advance registration required).

Watch for more information about additional Communities for Justice events throughout the year.

Those who decide to directly counter-protest the WBC are asked to do so in a non-violent, and legal manner, cooperating with the direction of law enforcement and campus security.
Gonzaga community members are advised that any violation of the law is likely to result in civil lawsuits as well as criminal charges. In any event, members of our community are urged to thoughtfully consider the power they surrender by playing into the carefully crafted agenda of this group, which gains influence primarily through the attention given to it. We invite individuals, external to the University but interested in taking a contra-position to the WBC, to consider the same approach.

I thank you for your active participation in the life of this great university; may our collaborative efforts advance the cause of justice on our campus and throughout the world.