For the first time this academic year, the air in front of the University of Rhode Island’s Memorial Student Union was charged last week by confrontations between visiting religious demonstrators and upset students.
Missionaries from an organization called Cross Country Evangelism stood on milk crates last Tuesday and held signs while sharing their beliefs with passing students, through methods that many on campus feel are less than civil.
“Do I respect the person’s right to go on public space and voice their opinions?” Cameron Williamson, a junior psychology major at URI who became particularly upset with the Evangelism speakers, said. Â “Of course. Do I respect someone who will push their opinions on others? No.”
“I can respect them for their religion. I can not respect them for the message they’re sending across and that’s…offending people,” Williamson said.
Demonstrators and preachers from various different groups can be spotted on campus during the fall and spring, often in shouting matches with students and in the case of last week, telling them that they are “going to hell,” to “bow to Jesus,” or making other religiously charged statements.
“We protect the Constitution and the right of expression,” said Memorial Union Director Bruce Hamilton, who is largely responsible for overseeing and monitoring the preachers and other Union-related activities. “I don’t necessarily believe in some of the things that are being said, but I still have to defend their rights to say them.”
As a public university, Hamilton said nearly anyone has the right to show up on campus to demonstrate respectfully, as long as it does not disrupt classes or interfere with the regular function of the university. However, Hamilton does request that activists check with his office, giving the university some control over, as Hamilton said, the “time, place and manner” of their demonstrations. It also allows Hamilton to convey a set of parameters for their visit. Most visitors are good about checking in and following the university’s guidelines, he said.
“The fact that someone’s saying something that I might not like, that you might not like, isn’t really the issue here,” Hamilton said. “It’s to be sure that we are protecting everybody, including the person speaking.” He added, “invariably, with some – not all – they’ll get confrontational…at the same time we want to protect our students.”
According to Williamson, URI is not doing enough. He says there is a line between upholding free speech and disrespecting people and according to him, that line is crossed “as soon as they start offending students.” He added, “[the university is] not limiting their freedom of speech, they’re protecting their investment…Get those people off campus if they’re offending people.”
According to Williamson, an activist from Cross Country Evangelism even went so far as to call him “retarded,” when they noticed a slight speech impediment. “That’s horrible to do,” he said. A representative of Cross County Evangelism could not be reached for comment on this.
After their visit to URI, Cross Country Evangelism continued to Rhode Island College, where they sparked similar unrest. According to their newspaper, The Anchor, students began chanting, “Get off our campus” when they began to take offense.
“Students should be standing up for themselves,” argued Williamson. “The moment you walk away, you’re giving them more power,” he said, disagreeing with Hamilton’s position that students have the opportunity to simply ignore the demonstrators exercise of the first amendment.
“I completely understand their logic…,” said Williamson, referencing their Constitutional right, “but that doesn’t mean put down other people.”