Free speech and the word of God

Distasteful proselytizing on campus must be tolerated under the tenets of free speech

Picture this, if you will. It’s 6 p.m., and you just got out of class. You walk toward the closest stop to catch a bus home, and stumble upon a pretty peculiar, yet familiar scene. A team of middle-aged men, most likely local evangelicals, stand near the bus stop amid throngs of student passers-by on their way to class or awaiting the next bus. Passing out literature on the wrath of God and the second-coming — or is it third-coming? — of “Jesus Christ, our Lord,” they shout from cheap megaphones or hold flimsy signs on which neo-Christian platitudes, such as “God Hates Fags” or “Burn in Hell, or accept Jesus” are scrawled. All the while most of their target audience — you and your fellow students — try desperately to ignore the men and their unwavering attempts to convince you that your failure to embrace our savior Jesus Christ is synonymous with an infinite afterlife burning in Satan’s eternal hell-fire.

The scene is akin to something one would find at a Westboro Baptist Church protest. But it’s not — it’s College Avenue on a Tuesday.

This type of proselytizing on campus is not uncommon. Undoubtedly, the practice is something anyone who frequents the University’s busiest campus has experienced. And on most days, it’s a minor inconvenience. But on others, the overly aggressive nature by which many practicing individuals forcibly impose their philosophy on disinterested student passersby is downright offensive.

The Daily Targum ran a letter Friday in which the author lamented the existence of distasteful proselytizing on campus. The author took issue specifically with the intrusive nature of the practice, which, at its best, hinders students from making their way across campus and, at its worst, leaves them feeling harassed. Specifically, the author acknowledged, “while proselytizing is legal ... aggressively attempting to impose your religion on another goes against the school’s widely publicized values of diversity and acceptance of differences.”

The author’s gripes with such a practice on campus are wholly justified. No student should come away from an encounter with these individuals feeling either emotionally or physically worse for the wear. But it also brings up an important question: How can students — or University administrators, for that matter — deal with the presence of such practices on campus? And should they?

It’s an important question, if only because proselytizing affects such a large portion of us here on campus. Most students have has some form of contact with this kind of practice, and for most students, the messages preached by these individuals are fanatic and unconvincing. Indeed, as the author of Friday’s letter explained, it seems counterintuitive that at a University whose primary values include an alleged commitment to widespread tolerance and diversity, such an insular practice would be allowed.

But, along with this commitment to diversity and tolerance, our University community, like so many across the country, has an equal commitment to free speech and expression. As students, we would be appalled and rightly outraged if one of our own campus groups was prevented from voicing their opinion even if, as it often is, via voice amplifiers and in-your-face tactics. In a community devoted to the free rein of ideas and freedom of speech, distasteful proselytizing must be regarded as a necessary evil.

Of course, if we are to respect the rights of these individuals to practice proselytizing on campus, students should naturally expect the same respect in return. Students and administrators must make it a point to be mindful of the aggressive nature of such a practice, and should not hesitate to draw a line should it become overly so. But until that point, students must, for better or worse, accept the practice for what it is — distasteful proselytizing, and simply that.

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