Students traveling in the vicinity of Borchuck Plaza Thursday were probably surprised to see a an evangelical preacher shouting at the surrounding crowd that they would spend an eternity in hell if they didn’t repent.
But, expecting it or not, an angry crowd of students quickly engaged the preacher, who was standing inside of a square of wooden roadblocks to keep himself at a safe distance from the crowd.
Occurrences like this are not new or unique to ETSU. Other nearby universities, such as the University of Tennessee and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, have encountered similar situations, often in a much more raucous fashion than last week’s display.
This style of religious expression is one of many examples of how freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment is put to the test on college campuses.
“Everywhere is an area for free speech at a public university,” said Edward Kelly, ETSU’s university counsel. “However, for outside entities wishing to make an appearance, we have designated areas called free speech zones.”
Borchuck Plaza outside of Sherrod Library is a free speech zone at ETSU. The plaza is designated by the university as a free speech zone because these visitors must be allowed to demonstrate in a place where they can be seen and heard.
“We could not restrict free speech to outside of the Center for Physical Activity from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. on Sunday,” Kelly said. “That would be infringing on First Amendment rights.”
The three things that universities control when it comes to the freedom of speech are time, place and circumstance. Content, on the other hand, cannot be regulated.
“Concerns over the actual content that demonstrators choose to discuss is where the university must step back,” Kelly said. “As long as there is not speech that is directly prompting violence, we can’t restrict content.”
Visitors must go through the proper procedures before they are allowed to demonstrate on campus. After approval, they are then subject to aforementioned time, place and circumstance regulations.
ETSU’s policy on Use of Campus Property and Facilities states that all non-affiliated entities desiring use of campus property must submit a written “Request for Use of Facilities” form for the proposed activity, and that “no assembly, meeting, demonstration or other activity will be authorized or permitted on any property or in any building or facility” without the proper request.