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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Miami’s withdrawl of invite to Westboro Baptist Church hinders academic inquiry

    Who knew the Westboro Baptist Church waited to be invited anywhere?

    Last week, Miami University pulled an unofficial invitation to a speaker from the controversial church. The Ohio school originally had tentative plans to ask Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church’s minister, Fred Phelps, to speak to a 100-level class on religious extremism. However, the university backtracked after members of administration expressed discomfort with the proposal. The WBC is best known for its homophobia. Its members typically picket at military funerals, carrying signs that say things like, “God hates America” and “fags are beasts.”

    Clearly, very few universities are pounding on the WBC’s door, just begging to be associated with the group. Miami University’s Phyllis Callahan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Miami Student that although faculty members have the right to invite just about any guest speaker to class, she questioned the risk of bringing a member of a known hate group like the WBC into a classroom. “Because you can do something, should you do it?” Callahan asked. “If I have an approval voice, I will not approve it.”

    Miami University administration was also careful to distance itself from the proposal. Miami’s associate director of external communications, Lisa Dankovich, told the Miami Student that a visit initiated by a faculty member was not the same as a university-sponsored event. This isn’t an issue regarding the WBC’s freedom of speech and First Amendment rights. Rather, it’s a challenge to academic freedom. Miami University’s president, David Hodge, released an online statement to emphasize that the school does not endorse the WBC.

    “I want to make it perfectly clear, that this is a group whose focus on hatred and personal destruction is aberrant to the values we strive to instill at Miami,” Hodge wrote. “The attempt to study their actions in the classroom should not be misunderstood as condoning or accepting their hate-filled rhetoric.” Phelps-Roper would have spoken to a limited number of students in a religious extremism class. Had administration officials chosen to move forward with the proposal, a formal invitation would not have been the same thing as giving the WBC an easy venue and captive audience. In this context, hearing a WBC member speak in person could offer students a rare opportunity to directly interact with course material.

    If Miami University truly wanted its students to fully pursue understanding religious extremism, it should have set aside its fear of appearing politically incorrect. Some ideas are scary. The idea that a bunch of nuts found each other, came together, made some really offensive signs and hung out at soldiers’ funerals is scary. But if we refuse to confront the scary ideas head-on, we can never develop a complete understanding of them and how to combat them.

    By inviting Phelps-Roper and the WBC into the classroom, Miami University could have put religious extremism under a scholarly lens, one that would not further hate speech or extreme evangelism, but provoke thought and academic discourse. Naturally, the WBC was disappointed about the withdrawal of the offer. WBC member Steve Drain told the Miami Student it was a “sad state of affairs … for people to be so scared about what the Bible really says that they would pull an offer.”“That’s not an open exchange of ideas at that university,” he added.

    It’s rare that the WBC gets anything right, but apparently it does occasionally happen. While the invitation to Phelps-Roper probably wasn’t pulled because Miami University’s administration fears the Bible, it’s true that pulling the invitation limited intellectual inquiry.

    — Kristina Bui is the copy chief for the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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