NOTE: Unavailable 2018-2019.
Victoria Saker Woeste is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, an organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of law. Her research inquires into the dynamics of legal change in twentieth-century U.S. society, with particular focus on agriculture and capitalism, business and regulation, and constitutionalism and civil rights. In her first book, The Farmer's Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in Industrial America (1998), Woeste argues that farmers mobilized law and corporate power to respond actively to industrialization and the nationalization of markets. Their initiative and creativity enabled them to mobilize law to shape market relations rather than be defined by them. In Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle against Hate Speech (2012) Woeste offers an explosive retelling of the obscure story of the auto manufacturer's side career as a hate-speech publisher, set in the context of 1920s tribalism and heightened economic instability. Henry Ford's unreflected antisemitism precipitated a federal libel lawsuit against him in 1927 that introduced questions of group libel and published race prejudice to the national legal stage. Though strong evidence existed to support charges of libel, Ford was able to evade responsibility for the damage his printed words had done, and the lack of accountability ensured that Ford's beliefs would become a touchstone for antisemitic groups worldwide. The book ties together the early history of the American legal profession, the roots of modern hate-speech regulations, and the history of civil rights activism. She is currently studying the civil rights law practice of the religious figure Fred W. Phelps Sr. and an assessment of the contributions of the church he founded, the Westboro Baptists, to American constitutional law and legal consciousness. She is also working on a synthetic history of American agriculture and its relationship to the state since 1862, with particular attention to the stories of family farmers, tenants, and seasonal laborers.
This lecture uncovers the surprising record of the civil rights litigation practice of Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr., founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, in eastern Kansas in the early decades after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). A native of Mississippi, Phelps earned his law degree at Topeka's Washburn University in 1964 and founded a family law practice not far from the state capitol. In the early 1970s, he began filing dozens of lawsuits in the federal district courts alleging discrimination against his clients on the basis of race, sex, and religion. Though he developed a reputation as a lawyer who preferred litigation to negotiation, he also proved tenacious once his cases came to trial, particularly when the defendants were corporate employers or, in one notable example, the Topeka Board of Education itself, which, twenty years after Brown, had still failed to address the unequal nature of primary and secondary educational facilities in the city. The lecture will attempt to explain how someone so devoted to civil rights for racial minorities and women could then make himself notorious as a hate speaker in opposition to civil rights for gay and lesbian individuals after 1990.