Street preachers at ETSU have become as omnipresent as squirrels or President Brian Nolands’ bright, yellow bow ties. You can’t spend four plus years at ETSU without seeing at least one.
About a week ago, on Sept. 2, two preachers set up shop in Borchuck Plaza, denouncing homosexuality and attracting a large crowd of upset students.
The preachers were met by a couple counter-protestors who were wearing rainbow flags as capes and holding up signs that arrows pointing to the preachers with messages like “’I have too much free time so I harass strangers’” and “No One Cares.” Students responded with arguments of their own, their words ranging in intensity from cool to apoplectic outrage.
Every year, preachers and political groups reserve time in Borchuck Plaza and the amphitheater, two locations on campus that have been designated free speech zones, and manage to rile up students through a variety of means — decrying homosexuality, comparing slavery to an internship, posted large images of aborted fetuses in the middle of walkways or insulting students.
It’s despicable behavior, but it’s protected by the First Amendment, and ETSU is obligated to provide a venue for their speech — providing the speakers don’t threaten the lives of students.
“If they’re threatening, if they pull out a knife and say ‘I’m going to kill you’ or if they punch somebody, then the university can actually do something, but if they insult somebody [ETSU] can probably not,” said University Counsel Ed Kelly in an interview published in the Sept. 29, 2014 issue of the East Tennessean.
Kelly also said there are time, place and manner restrictions placed on speakers.
They must notify the university several days in advance and cannot enter buildings that are designated as private.
However, the university must make sure that the venue in which the speakers sermonize is a public seating — they can’t be relegated to the farthest corner of campus.
Insults are never conducive to understanding, but there are preachers who visit the university that attempt to engage students in a rational conversation about religion.
These conversations do tend to be more conservative in nature, something that most liberal college students probably don’t appreciate (particularly when preachers begin irrationally denouncing homosexuality). But these conversations can be healthy.
Convictions become more robust when they’re challenged, and that doesn’t mean we can’t challenge those beliefs in turn.
As far as we’re concerned, students have two possible courses of action: they can ignore the preachers (for most people, this is probably the preferred route to take), or they can confront them head-on with signs, demonstrations and arguments of their own (this is, by far, more fun).