Westboro Baptist Church Demonstrates at Nicholls State
Appropriate handling of the protests by police and effective university policies ensured the protests remained peaceful.
In 2005, the leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for its extreme stance against homosexuality, decided to demonstrate at Nicholls State University.
“They found out that Nicholls State had a student organization called the Gay-Straight Alliance,” says Campus Police Chief Craig Jaccuzzo. “The Westboro Baptist church was fully against it, and because we at the institution allowed that student organization to meet regularly, the Westboro Baptist church felt we supported homosexuality. At the same time, they had some issues with the local Catholic church because the priest at the Catholic church on our campus announced he was gay.
“I was sent a certified letter by the Westboro Baptist church telling me they planned to protest on our campus and I was obligated to protect their protestors. If anything happened to them and they were physically harmed, they said they would hold the university and me financially liable.”
In response, Nicholls State and its police department provided the protestors with a barricaded “free speech ally” and parking. At the same time, about 1,000 student counter-protestors were also present.
The Westboro Baptist demonstrators included children as young as two years old and carried very graphic displays depicting their opinions about homosexuality, the pope and the Catholic religion. Because Nicholls State is located in an area with a large community of Catholics, the potential for conflict with the Westboro Baptist protestors and student counter-protestors was very real.
“[The Westboro Baptist demonstrators] were trying to cause a major disruption and cause a retaliation that physically harmed them so they would be able to sue, but no situation developed between the [protestors and counter-protestors],” Jaccuzzo claims.
He says appropriate planning and police tactics helped keep student counter-protestors from losing their tempers and lashing out at the Westboro Baptist demonstrators.
“The state police gave me background details on their organization and the methods they used when they were in New Orleans,” he adds. “We used law enforcement on the outskirts of the protest to make sure nothing was taking place in the parking lot or campus facilities. We had university officers present among the students and in the protestors’ section.”
Although the police department’s and university’s handling of the Westboro Baptist protests were deemed a success, Jaccuzzo admits they could have prepared the campus community better so they wouldn’t be so shocked by the disturbing nature of the graphic materials the Westboro Baptist church used, as well as their use of children in the protests.
Despite this, however, Jaccuzzo says the students behaved appropriately and respectfully. “The attempt to emotionally affect our campus student body didn’t work.”
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