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A brief look at political statements gone horribly wrong

Here's the thing about life in a college town: Just when you think you've seen every form of political self-expression imaginable, something will emerge from the shadows of obscurity to shock you out of complacency.

Take for instance, an anti-gay organization protesting a memorial gathering for TV's Mr. Rogers in May 2003. Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, headed by Fred Phelps, came to town to condemn Fred Rogers for not condemning homosexuality ... and to condemn the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development for being affiliated with Rogers.

Never mind that Mr. Rogers wasn't gay, or that his message of "love your neighbor" was basically plagiarized from Jesus (with the tiny addition: "Put on a sweater"). That should hardly come as a surprise, however; Phelps and his followers seem to view moments of personal tragedy as an opportunity to promote their brand of radical Christianity: The group has also shown up to protest the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, expounding on its belief that America is being punished for tolerating homosexuality.

Unfortunately, bigotry is not the exclusive property of the out-of-towners. Oakland's Garage Door Saloon probably snatched the title of "Most Embarrassing Bar Promotion in Pittsburgh" early this year when it unveiled a Coronita-and-taco special titled "Wetback Wednesdays."

"I was appalled and surprised," says Amelia Marritz, who was a senior at Pitt at the time and started a Facebook group calling for people to boycott the bar. The Garage Door is still in business, but the sign is gone; somebody stole it in March, an act that Marritz does not condone.

"There are better ways of dealing with the situation," she says. "I definitely learned [to] go with that gut reaction and don't be afraid to say something. ... It turned out there were a lot of people who agreed with me."

But students don't always live up to the ideals of tolerance either. Back in April 2004, there was Natrat -- a purportedly satirical April Fool's issue of Carnegie Mellon's student newspaper The Tartan, which featured jokes about rape and killing black people.

After the issue ignited a brushfire of controversy, Bob Rost -- a cartoonist who contributed a controversial strip to Natrat -- posted an analysis of his cartoon online, explaining that it was taken out of context and "part of the point was to be offensive in general."

Whatever wit the editors thought they were displaying, it did not amuse the public -- especially in light of the fact that the publication was funded with student-activities fees.

And if history is any evidence, this academic year will provide at least one more what-were-they-thinking moment. Maybe the Scientologists will launch an all-out war on the masked protesters who demonstrated across the street from their office last February. Maybe the Jews for Jesus will make another major conversion pit stop here, like they did back in 2005.

No matter what it is, you likely won't expect it. But if you think Pittsburgh is tapped out of lunacy, remember this: Almost 300,000 people in Allegheny County voted for Bush the second time.

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