On Sept. 21, a man holding a sign reading “Jesus saves from Hell” began preaching repentance to students in front of the Gerald R. Sherratt library. Students quickly took notice and began voicing opposition to the sign, which called for a number of people, including LGTBQ, to repent.
Eventually, campus police were alerted and barriers were placed around the man to keep tensions from escalating. Students chanted in protest.
“Love is love,” they chanted. “God is love.”
After a few hours, the man left without fanfare. Over a month later, the interaction left a bitter taste for many students who interacted with him. Why was the man, who reportedly shouted “Young lady, close your legs” at one female student, allowed a platform on Southern Utah University’s campus?
On Tuesday, Oct. 27, SUU held a virtual student forum to answer that question and discuss free speech on campus.
The staff running the meeting included Eric Kirby, the assistant vice president for Student Affairs, Jared Tippets, the vice president for Student Affairs, Donielle Savoie, the director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Mary Bennett, the director of Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service.
“We were just protecting [the man with the sign’s] right to be there,” Kirby said. “Just because we are allowing him to be there doesn’t mean that we are condoning what he is saying.”
Tippets mentioned that the school has received a lot of questions about the preacher, and said the goal of the forum on freedom of speech was to “help individuals better understand why the university allows for conversation, speech and expression that may not sit well or hurt as we hear it.”
Tippets explained that the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from government restrictions on speech, expression and assembly.
“We believe free speech to be the cornerstone of our democracy,” Tippets said. “It is this first amendment that protects people as they share ideas, oftentimes that can be unpopular with those around them. It gives us the opportunity to question the way our country is run and provides that protection to explore ideas.”
Kirby, Tippets, Savoie and Bennett moved through the forum by addressing different aspects of freedom of speech.
Is Free Speech a Political Issue?
Tippets, who moderated the event, presented this question to the panel first. Bennett answered saying, “Yes and no. I think both political parties exercise, liberally, their freedom of speech. That speech takes a lot of forms. There’s the traditional advertising and advocacy that we see going on in campaigns and then we’ve seen other speech that take the form of protests. I don’t know that anyone’s speech has been restricted.”
Kirby added onto Bennett’s answer.
“This is the beauty of free speech, that it allows other parties to say something we dislike and that it’s the same right that allows us to share things that we think is right. Freedom of speech protects everyone, all parties,” Kirby said.
Savoie explained that education is sometimes uncomfortable and voiced her opinion that it isn’t the role of the university to shield students from ideas that they don’t agree with.
“[Education] is supposed to make you think. Freedom of speech and protecting people is paradoxical in nature,” Savoie said. “We want a climate where there’s respect, but we also have the right to stand up and counter-protest if someone is saying something that we don’t believe in.”
The Code of Conduct and Freedom of Speech
Savoie outlined that there’s a line between the right to freedom of speech and SUU’s Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct Policy that all students are expected to follow.
“Just because something is covered under freedom of speech doesn’t mean that it’s allowed under the code of conduct,” Savoie said.
Kirby expanded on Savoie’s comment, saying that although students might not be held accountable for violating free speech, they can be held responsible for breaking the code of conduct.
“We as a government entity have the obligation to uphold the freedoms in the first amendment,” Kirby said. “We also have in our community an expectation that students live to a higher standard.”
Freedom of Speech Versus Safety of Students
SUU student Cynthia Hawk submitted a comment concerning the preacher’s visit to campus, and some other students voiced concerns that the university had prioritized protecting the freedom of speech of the preacher rather than the safety of its students.
“I feel that the breach of peace (threats and endangerment of students) occured on September 21, 2020 from the man in the freedom of speech zone,” Hawk wrote in her question. “Perhaps we can detail and add to the SUU free speech policy that allows to deplatform folks on campus that are breaching the peace? For example, he told a girl she’d be raped by God’s will. That’s endangering students and inciting violence in speech (hate speech).”
Tippets responded saying, “We will do everything we can to protect the freedom of speech, but we will also do what we can to protect the safety of our students and make sure that folks feel safe and supported here.”
He also encouraged students to “grab an administrator or police officer” during freedom of speech demonstrations.
“The mere fact that hate speech is occurring on campus and that we are allowing that speech doesn’t mean that we as a university or as individuals or administrators are condoning it,” Tippets said.
He backed up this statement by explaining that the police notified the preacher that those types of direct intimidating threats needed to stop immediately. Tippets made it clear that SUU doesn’t condone hate speech, but to protect freedom of speech it has to reach a “certain bar” of endangering students before they stop it.
Kirby addressed hate speech by invoking 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case Matal v. Tam, where the court defined hate speech as “‘Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability or any other similar ground is hateful, but proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”
Resources on Campus
Kirby said that he believes it’s important to let students know of resources on campus that will both help them feel safe and provide avenues to let their thoughts and opinions be known.
Kirby recommended that students take advantage of the school’s Counseling and Psychological Services, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Leavitt Center, the Care and Support Team, SUU News, and the Assistant Coaches for Excellence and Success program.
“We provide an outlet for students to come and share their opinions at Pizza and Politics. You are free to speak as you wish,” Bennett said.
This event is held every Wednesday from 12-1 p.m. in the Leavitt Center in the student center.
Tippets ended the forum by inviting students with further questions to visit with Kirby, Bennett, Savoie or himself personally.
“In higher education we aren’t trying to silence voices, but ensure that all voices are heard,” Kirby said.
Story by: Elizabeth Armstrong
Photos by: Christopher Dimond