AP/wide world photosSome observers heralded the domain hijack of godhatesfags.com from a family of 12 gay-hating Kansas civil-rights attorneys as the "Stonewall of the '90s." But the action is also raising serious First Amendment and online-security questions.
Kris Haight, a 22-year-old systems administrator in New Hampshire, says the famed god hatesfags.com URL—the Web site for the Reverend Fred Phelps' strident anti-gay campaign—was anonymously transferred to his name on Aug. 18. The unknown hacker alerted him via e-mail to watch the Internic domain registry, on which his name appeared as the registrant for the site. The next day, Haight put his own spin on the prank, using his company's server to re-route "hate" visitors to godlovesfags.com, a site he maintains along with Richard Mackey, a 27-year-old Christian gay man in Omaha, Nebraska. (Haight isn't religious.)
"I'm a big proponent of free speech," said Mackey, who also runs a site that showcases cute men and explains why he thinks God does indeed love homosexuals (richonthenet.com). "But [Phelps] has been preaching hate for so long. If we put a little love on his site for a few days, I'm okay with that.
"Some anonymous hacker out there did this and deserves a lot of credit," he added.
A Boston-based online-hate tracker doesn't agree. "Its relevance has no lasting power," said David Goldman, founder of Hatewatch.org. "In fact, I think that as a tactic to be used by the civil-rights community, it's a misguided one."
Goldman said limiting Phelps' speech, even temporarily, "takes away one of the greatest advantages the civil-rights community has on the Web: exposing bigots using their own words. Fred Phelps does a perfect job of showing himself for what he is."
And the move could backfire on Haight, Mackey and the original hacker, if found. Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of Fred Phelps and one of his 11 kids-cum-attorneys, called the actions "crimes" and said she contacted the FBI and Haight's employer.
Haight, who also hosts gaycollegeboys.com and a Waffle House fan site (wafflehouse.org), says the hijack challenged the "extreme hate" spread by Phelps—a Mississippi-born fitness buff, boll-weevil Democrat and perennial Kansas gubernatorial candidate who bikes and jogs his anti-abortion/low-taxes message around the state.
"I think there are limits," Haight said. "Everybody has the right to say what he or she wants on the Internet. But don't say [Matthew Shepard] is burning in hell."
Godhatesfags.com features the deceased Wyoming college student's head amid animated flames. Haight was unaware that the Phelps family—which comprises nearly the entire congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church, which Phelps has pastored for 44 years—is made up of a dozen attorneys with a history of fighting civil-rights cases.
"We come to this hour prepared," said Phelps-Roper, the mother of 10. "We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were nigger lovers." In the '70s and '80s, the Phelps law firm made up one-third of the state's federal docket of civil-rights cases, according to Phelps-Roper. They represented minority Kansans in separate actions against Kansas Power & Light, the Topeka city attorney's office, and Southwestern Bell, and they represented female professors who were alleging discrimination at two Kansas universities.
Now 69, Phelps was disbarred from Kansas state courts in 1979 for too vigorously cross-examining a court reporter who then accused him of waging a personal vendetta against her. Phelps-Roper claims the state targeted her father for his civil-rights efforts; he continued fighting cases through federal court until he retired in 1989. "His ability in a courtroom was legendary," she says.
Phelps-Roper, who says her husband's half-brother is gay, believes her family's view makes perfect sense. "You are born black; everyone grows old; you're either a man or a woman," she said. "These people [homosexuals] are identified by a perverted sex act. Period." She added that two brothers who don't agree with the family's politics moved to California.
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The family started protesting homosexuality in the late 1980s after Phelps-Roper's then-toddler son was allegedly propositioned by a homosexual in a Topeka park, she said. The Phelpses picketed the city to patrol gay sexual activity in the park, later taking their vitriolic show on the road, targeting gay funerals such as Shepard's, as well as living homosexuals.
Goldman isn't completely surprised by the Phelpses' civil-rights history. "There are people who believe in equality and civil rights except when it comes to gays and lesbians. When it comes to the sexual domain, they freeze up and become as repressive and bigoted as any member of the Ku Klux Klan," he said.
Goldman said he is most concerned with the lapse of security measures by Network Solutions, where the domain was registered, and the ability of other hackers to follow suit. "I'm no friend of Fred Phelps, but I am a fan of legal, appropriate measures to ensure that this type of transfer doesn't happen again," he said. Network Solutions offered no answers by press time.
"We are investigating and cannot comment further regarding this," said spokeswoman Cheryl Cregan.