My dad was a street preacher. When I was in middle school, before I came out, I used to stand next to him in Cass Park in Detroit.
He would wear cologne as if he was attending some sort of outdoor church service. Homeless folks had to line up to listen to his stern sermon before he would distribute the food he had brought with him.
At Central Michigan University, we have more choice. We can alter our paths to class to avoid campus preachers spewing hateful messages.
We can engage with the preachers. We can argue, even though it is clear we’ll never win. And if we are discernibly “different” from the preacher in question – if we are women, or visibly non-Christian or a part of the LGBTQ community – we can duck our heads and say a silent prayer we won’t be selected as today’s target.
As someone who is queer and transgender, I am intimately aware of the impact the bigoted messages of fundamentalist Christianity can have.
In my ideal world, LGBTQ people new to college, exploring their identity and struggling with self-doubt wouldn’t have to face anti-LGBTQ prejudice when walking from class to class. Women (and trans folks who can get pregnant) who have made the difficult decision of terminating a pregnancy would not have to hear the shame they’ve internalized from our broader culture spewing from the mouth of a man who cares more about religious doctrine and potential fetuses than fully formed human beings.
Rick Warzyawk, a well-known preacher at CMU, can often be seen shouting at students about topics such as sexuality and abortion. A picture recently posted by Central Michigan Life showed Junior Brianne Elzinga kicking Warzyak’s sign after preaching against abortion.
The picture caused a social media frenzy. Some people applauded Elzinga, but others came to Warzywak’s defense.
While I find much of what Warzywak has to say deplorable, to some extent, he does have the right to say it.
But freedom of speech in the United States – Warzywak’s, mine and yours – is not without limitation, especially when it invokes certain kinds of conduct. Under the First Amendment, political speech is the least restricted category of speech, but it can sometimes be regulated, as can conduct.
Grand Rapids senior Kaylie Johnson agrees that from a legal standpoint “preachers have a right to be there and say offensive things.” The former Secular Student Alliance intern says her work with the organization taught her threats or harassment on an individual level may invoke legal consequences, but what constitutes this category of speech is sometimes unclear.
One journal article from the American Bar Association differentiates between discriminatory harassment and generic harassment. The authors say only discriminatory harassment can be restricted. This form of harassment must target “a protected class,” be unwelcome “verbal, written, and/or online conduct” and deprive students of “educational access, opportunities, rights, and/or peaceful enjoyment therefrom.”
What constitutes conduct is another question. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “hate speech stops being just speech and becomes conduct when it targets a particular individual” and “forms a pattern of behavior that interferes with a student’s ability to exercise [the] right to participate fully in the life of the university.”
Based on these standards, has Warzywak crossed that line? If so, how can we address it? If not, how can we counter his harmful messages without infringing on his rights?
I encourage anyone who believes they’ve faced one on one intimidation, harassment or threats from a campus preacher on Central’s campus to contact the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity.
Throughout my college career, I’ve heard many students express facing potentially unprotected speech or conduct from campus preachers.
If the university is not aware of specific incidents in which student rights are violated, there is no way for the situation to be addressed (or any recourse if the university fails to address it).
Perhaps more powerful and immediate than that, we can counter the messages of preachers like Warzywak by insisting his views are not our own. That’s why my organization Students Advocating Gender Equality is demonstrating on the sidewalk between the University Center and Anspach Hall at 11 a.m. today.
Whether you are a person of faith who feels your views are being misrepresented or an ally to women and LGBTQ people who don’t want fellow students to feel degraded, you can change campus’ dialogue.
From my experience, the majority of our community values acceptance, diversity, solidarity, compassion and support for one another. Stop by, write down your message and add your voice to the mix. Show other students what you believe and how strongly you believe it – and not in the form of screaming, “You’re all going to hell.”
Kai Niezgoda is the co-president of the Students Advocating Gender Equality. Kai is part of our campus voices network. If you are interested in becoming part of our network, contact Arielle Hines at email@example.com.
Views expressed in opinion and commentary articles do not necessarily reflect the views of management or employees of CMU Insider.