The Great Fag Wars Of 1999
The tangled web of

The big buzz on the Internet last week (aside from peeping into unsuspecting Hotmail users' inboxes) was about the notorious Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church God Hates Fags Web site, which fell into the hands of the operators of God Loves Fags. In the aftermath, the right thing happened for the wrong reasons, and the good guy turned out to maybe be a bad guy, while the bad guys came across looking good. In essence, this is a case of how not to protest on the Internet.

See also...
... by Mat Honan
... in the Whoa! section
... from September 7, 1999

The story goes like this: On August 18, an anonymous trickster using a bogus email address transferred ownership of the domain from Phelps to Kris Haight, who owns, the rebuttal site. For roughly 72 hours, neo-Nazis and curiosity seekers who typed the "hates" URL in a browser's address bar were automatically redirected to Haight's site. Then, on August 21, Haight posted a message on his site stating that the domain ownership had been transferred back to Phelps in order to avoid a suit that would force "an entire ISP and all of their clients [to lose] their connection to the Internet." But was that really what happened?

Not according to Shirley Roper, one of Phelps' daughters and an attorney for the church. Roper states that no one from Westboro has contacted Haight, nor has the church threatened anyone involved with a lawsuit.

"That's just a fat lie, it's simply a lie," says Roper. "I have never contacted his employer." She maintains that the only action taken by Westboro was to notify the FBI and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and request that those agencies investigate the matter. She adamantly denies that Westboro took any steps to sever Haight's ISP's uplink, maintaining that Westboro could not force such an action.

"Of course that can't happen, but fags are liars. It's sophistry," says Roper. "If he doesn't like the gospel message of Westboro Baptist Church, he can do as the Supreme Court says and avert his eyes. He wants to silence anyone who says 'oh yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo Mr. Fag juggernaut that is running from one end of this country to another. There is a God in heaven and a day of judgement and it's not okay to be gay.' Then they want to stomp on you with everything in their arsenal. One of them is that you swim in a sea of lies."

"Shirley Roper is a liar," says Haight. When asked if Westboro had threatened him with a lawsuit, or if the ISP's uplink could have been disconnected, Haight told this reporter "That's exactly what happened." But then, Haight began to retreat from his position.

First, Haight admitted that he had not spoken with any attorneys from Westboro. He then stated that someone claiming to be an attorney from Westboro called the company that provided his ISP with uplink, and threatened to take legal action if the site was not redirected. Haight stated that had this happened, the ISP and all of its customers would have lost their Internet connection. When asked how the Phelps family would have forced his uplink to cut his link to the Internet, Haight admits that Phelps probably could not have accomplished anything.

"In retrospect, I went and talked to a friend of mine and I found out that the company was not liable for that," says Haight. "There was very little Phelps could have done -- legally, at least."

"I removed the site for that, and because I didn't want Phelps and his followers hawking on our uplink. My boss would have fired me had that happened."

This seems to jive with Roper's take on the situation. She claims that the real reason Haight took down the site was due to pressure from his employer, Sugar River Valley Online. To back up this statement, Roper provided GettingIt with a copy of an email message Westboro received from Haight's employer.

"I find myself in the awkward position of apologizing for the actions of one of my (soon to be former) employees," reads the message. "When Kris told me InterNIC had emailed him the change of registration for the domain, I informed him he would have to give the domain back to it's [sic] rightful owners.... I find it unfortunate that someone from your organization did not contact me directly to notify me of this difficulty. If this had been done, this whole affair would have been cleaned up much more quickly. I can assure you that Mr. Haight will cease to be an employee of our company."

Haight claims that he knew of the email, yet it was a "very carefully worded" deception. He tells GettingIt that he had just received a new job offer, and had already given notice to his employer. The email, according to Haight, was worded to sound as if he had been fired, when in fact he was already leaving. He did state that his employer would have placed him on leave if he had not already quit.

Haight then gave a different explanation as to why he had surrendered the fight. "[The domain] wasn't rightfully mine. Phelps had said this in several interviews and -- I hate to say this -- but he was right. It wasn't mine to take, it wasn't mine to hold on to. It was nice for the couple of days that it was and we got a lot of publicity and promotion for our site, which wasn't really well known. I didn't want this to go much further, I didn't want to get investigated, so I said well, I'll just give it back to him."

Haight's realization echoed what many in the Internet community also felt. Usenet posts to various newsgroups were almost universally gleeful about the takeover, yet several users pointed out that although his heart might have been in the right place, Haight went about what he did in the wrong way. As Roedy Green points out on the can.motss newsgroup, "the best way to deal with Fred-like characters is to let them spew. They can then be debated. They prove themselves silly. When you censor, you give them power by implying they have some secret potent truth."

Haight seems to have realized only afterward that freedom of speech can be a double-edged sword.

See also: Jenny, Is That Really You?

Mat Honan is a Senior Editor at GettingIt. He loves everybody (except you).