Free speech or hate speech?


Thomas Celles
Viewpoints Editor
Samantha Clark

On Thursday, students’ classes were disrupted by visitors from Martyrs Memorial Christian Fellowship in Coushatta, Louisiana preaching on Kyser Brickway.

The church’s pastor and five other members arrived on Kyser Brickway around noon. They brought two large signs adorned with Bible verses and a list of allegedly Hell-bound groups.

One member, Timothy Keaton, began loudly proclaiming the church’s beliefs to students passing by.

At approximately 12:15 p.m., Sergeant Knight from University Police arrived on the scene after receiving complaints of the disturbance. Several other officers also arrived shortly thereafter to assess the commotion.

University Police said that the visitors had the right to speak on campus as long as they remained 150 feet from Kyser and Williamson Halls, in accordance with university policy.

According to the NSU Student Affairs and University Police websites, this policy is intended to prevent the disruption of academic functions.

Despite the slight relocation, some students still complained about the noise.

“We could hear them clearly from class [in Kyser],” Matt Phillips, junior, said. “We discussed it in class and all thought it was very disturbing.”

Many students were upset by more than just the disruptive volume of the message, however. Several students walking past claimed that the group yelled derogatory slurs and curse words at them.

“My friend walked by with a rainbow lanyard, and she was called the f word,” junior Shari Wilson said, referring to a homophobic slur.

Chloe Blank, sophomore, said that one of the men told her she was “on the road to Hell.”

Some students did their best to ignore the excitement but others, such as sophomore Austin Warren, decided to approach the group.

“The first time I walked by they were kind of just shouting, and we were discussing how [the word] gay wasn’t on the sign,” Warren said. “They said that it was because gay means happy and that gay people don’t deserve that word.”

In response to the visiting demonstrators, groups of students from Northwestern State University and the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts began to gather to counter-protest the church’s message.

At one point approximately 150 to 200 students were at the counter-protest. Many were chanting and arguing with the guests, and some waved various flags representing the LGBTQ community.

Around 2:30 p.m. University Police intervened after an altercation occurred between a student and one of the preachers.

According to police, the man placed his hand on a student’s shoulder without her permission. The unidentified student became visibly upset and ran past University Police Officer Franklin, who decided to intervene.

Officer Franklin also said he overheard one of the Bible Evangelists tell a black student that he or she was going to hell based on his or her skin color.

University Police said that they did not force the Bible Evangelists to leave. The church group chose to leave after the police told them they had to stop directly communicating with the students.

Students said that despite their disagreement with the demonstrators, they enjoyed the sense of community that the counter-protest fostered.

“I felt really proud of the student body at that moment,” PRIDE President Haleigh Gates said. “Many students present were not members of the LGBTQ community, but they were still standing with their fellow students.”

Dean of Students Frances Conine is proud of the students for standing up for themselves.

“I think it’s the right thing to do: to stand up for who you are and what you believe in,” Conine said.

Dean Conine said University Police is looking into allegations that the group crossed the line between free speech and hate speech.

“Craig Vercher, who’s the chief of police, is getting the body cam, and we’re gonna look at it from the police officers to see if we find anything that would be contrary to our student code that would allow us to take any action against them,” Conine said.

Conine also said they’re going to talk to the district attorney to see what constitutes hate speech.

“I cannot condone any hateful behavior from any group of people,” Jacob Ellis, student body president, said. “Campus should be a safe space for all students. They should feel respected and safe on our campus.”

Dean Conine said that even though the group’s values differ from the univrsity’s, they have the right exercise free speech on campus.

“As far as the university is concerned, our mission is contrary to all the kinds of things that they’re talking about, but we must follow the law in terms of free speech and assembly as a public institution,” Conine said.