CSU’s denial of a controversial group’s plan to protest in the parking lot at Hughes Stadium was based on safety concerns, not first amendment issues, said university administrators and police.
Last week, Westboro Baptist Church announced plans to picket the Oct. 12 Homecoming football game between CSU and the University of Wyoming. The group aims to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, a University of Wyoming student who died at Poudre Valley Hospital on Oct. 12, 1998, after suffering attacks by two men who disagreed with his sexual orientation.
The church members asked to protest in the parking lot at Hughes Stadium to demonstrate their anti-gay beliefs. Administration and police denied them, voicing safety concerns about the proposed picket location.
“It’s just the same as if someone wanted to protest on the roof of the library,” said Tom Milligan, CSU director of communications. “A parking lot is not a safe or reasonable place for any protest; there’s lots of traffic and it’s a chaotic environment.”
The Topeka, Kan. group, led by Pastor Fred Phelps, travels the country expressing its views about homosexuality. Linda Kuk, vice president of student affairs, informed the group they can take advantage of the “free speech zone,” located on the Plaza in front of the Lory Student Center.
“We’re not going to be where the school suggests we be, which is several miles from the football game,” said Fred Phelps Jr., the church leader’s oldest son. “We will be on a city sidewalk near the stadium.”
The sides of the public streets are open to the picketers, said Fort Collins Police Service spokesman Dave Freismuch, as long as they do not harass the public or block traffic.
Milligan insisted this is not a first amendment issue, since university officials would allow no group to protest in the Hughes Stadium parking lot.
“We told the same thing to the students who wanted to counter-protest,” Milligan said. “They have to do it in the Plaza. The parking lot is not an appropriate or safe place.”
Students planning to counter-protest include the university’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender organization, who said they will make a “peaceful, positive presence” if the church does demonstrate. The GLBT is also devising other non-aggressive tactics for Homecoming week, said Rod Rodriguez, the student coordinator of the counter-protest.
Phelps Jr. said he is somewhat disappointed by the university’s treatment of the church.
“What we generally find is a high level of hypocrisy if the administration or student body disagrees with what’s being expressed,” Phelps Jr. said. “The idea of free expression goes out the window.”