How Westboro Baptist Works
The first thing you need to understand about Fred Phelps is that he is not staging a protest, he is running a business. The second thing you need to understand is how they use their Constitutionally guaranteed rights to exploit others. Here is their standard procedure:
1) Find a venue that will draw media attention.
2) Stage a protest, maintaining two key objectives: A) To follow the exact letter of the law, doing nothing that violates any rule or ordinance, and B) To be as offensive as possible. The main goal is to incite SOMEONE ELSE into breaking the law or violating WESTBORO'S rights.
3) Sue the provoked party for violating the "church's" rights. They do not ask for punitive damages, only the right to continue protesting, and restitution of legal fees.
Now here's the REAL key to how this works: Most of Phelps' children and grandchildren are lawyers. They live communally on a large enclave in KY they've designated as their church. The "legal fees" a court orders the provoked party to pay are billed and collected by the church itself!
Because they are careful to stay within the letter of the law, they generally win their court cases. They are so repugnant that no court would award them damages, but the losing party must still pay their legal expenses- and Phelps and crew can claim any amount they want, because they are both the recipient and supplier of those services.
Moreover, every victory makes the next one easier by making the group itself more hated- and more likely to invoke a violent or unconstitutional response which they can sue over. They sue a city, which makes a citizen in the next location threaten them, so they sue him, which makes the next city look for a way to bend the rules and keep them from protesting, leading to another lawsuit... It's a continual feedback loop of hate and animosity.
The tactic has worked well for them- according to some sources, their travel budget alone approaches a quarter million dollars a year.
So, how do you stop them?
There are two things that will stop Westboro Baptist: Indifference, or a favorable court ruling.
With Westboro before the US Supreme Court this week, there is a possibility of a ruling that will make their activities more difficult to profit by. Ideally, SCOTUS would simply rule thatcontext is relevant when determining whether speech is protected. They can even issue that itself as a broad ruling, while narrowly finding either for or against the specific plaintiff. This is consistent with established law- Yelling fire in a crowded theatre, for example. It is also consistent with common sense- using the N-word is valid during a speech on the cultural impact of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but yelling that same word in front a Martin Luther King Day event is attempting to incite a riot. Essentially, this would be a matter of the court clarifying the "fighting words" doctrine.
The other way to stop Phelps is simply not to let him win. In order to continue making a profit, he must provoke a response that he can sue over. If he is met only with ridicule or indifference, he will pack up and go home.
This has already happened when Phelps protested near Comic Con, a national gathering of comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming fans. They were met by dozens of counter-protesters dressed in elaborate costumes and carrying comical signs. Passers-by cheered on the costumed revellers, posed for pictures, and all but ignored the Westboro group across the street. The comic fans created such a spectacle that they were featured in dozens of newspapers and websites- many of whom gave Westboro a one sentence mention towards the bottom of a lengthy and amply illustrated article. The anti-gay protest quickly folded and went home empty handed.
When Phelps comes to your town, stage your own counter-protest. Create a media circus with costumes, music, and comedy- but keep it lighthearted and a short distance away. Bring signs reading "God hates flags", "Dog Hates Dyslexics", or dress as a zombie with a "Thank Romero for undead soldiers" banner. (okay, maybe that's still tasteless, but you get the point) Take your town back by dismissing them with what we should have said all along: "You can't be serious.