Harassment Versus Free Speech: When The Street Preacher Came to Campus

    Yesterday on campus we saw the clash of ideologies and the effects that hate speech have on our student body. On the grassy corner of Howard Phillips Hall, between the empty Reflection Pond and the John C Hitt Library, two men in dad jeans and shirts proclaiming damnation stood antagonizing the peaceful day at UCF.

     For me, this all started in my first class of the day, when a friend of mine told me about a man wearing a “Porn Leads to Hell” shirt screaming into a megaphone. As soon as class ended, I took the usual route to my dorm and walked past the two men holding signs and talking to a UCF police officer. A crowd of students, from all walks of life, waited around to see what would happen. Ultimately, the men were allowed to speak, and the officer left. Over time the crowd began to grow, and I saw more of my own friends joining the group.

     The men once again took up their flyers and megaphone and began to speak. The rhetoric that spewed loud and proud from their corner of the sidewalk was hateful and ignorant to say the least, and our students were not having it. I began to ask around to see how the situation had escalated in this way. One girl told me that the men were calling out women for their clothing choices as they walked by. Harassing them for wearing anything from skinny jeans to shorts to tank tops. I looked down at my own attire and realized that my shorts and tank top would not pass the litmus test for acceptable attire to get into Heaven at their standards. The girl who I had been talking to told me, “He said that women dressed like you are the cause of rape.” This was nothing I hadn't heard before, but was still appalling to me.

    I continued to press on through the crowd in order to find out more about what had been happening throughout the day. A boy I met told me that he had been there all morning. He had heard the men discussing the permissibility of marital rape. Apparently, according to a man with a megaphone yelling at a group of college kids, a woman has no agency over her body in marriage and men have a right to sex whenever they wish.

    People have often been using religious texts in order to defend their personal vendettas against certain societal issues. As I stood on the sidewalk, a proud Catholic, alongside my friend, a proud Christian, I felt ashamed of the way our faith was being portrayed and abused. I felt ashamed that this was the message that my fellow students were getting. No longer capable of being a bystander, I yelled “Who are you to condemn us to hell?”

     The man replied, “I am the chosen messenger of God.” At that point, I had to walk away. My best friend and I left with nothing left to say and no argument capable of dissuading him. Also, we had class pretty soon and this wasn’t worth staying for. It was like watching a bad car accident unfold, you have to drive away eventually.

     But I did have to cross that street again. After my next class, I found myself once again on that route, and decided to take the detour and see how this disaster had been unfolding. When I arrived, there were UCF police officers separating the students from these Prophets of damnation. A megaphone sat on the sidewalk for students to grab and raise their voices. A girl led the now incredibly large group of UCF students in mocking the evangelizers. A friend of mine began to lead a chant, he started yelling “Pornhub!” and the crowd of students followed him. The megaphone spoke again, “Porn is you having sex with your computer.” A boy near me began to hump his computer and moan. There was no method to the madness. And here we were, giving these men an audience.

     They openly harassed people for their sexuality, their choice of clothing, and their appearance. UCFPD, meanwhile, made sure we respected the sidewalk and stayed on the grass. I zoned out for a moment and noticed a boy asleep on the far corner of this chaos. I realized that I could literally be doing anything else right now.

     I walked away. Around 10 feet away from these men I saw a group of kids in a circle of quiet group bible study.

     I heard more stories from the events of today as I went about my day. I heard about two girls who didn't know each other kissing in front of the men. I heard about a boy who pulled out a book about John Grisham and began to read a random excerpt in response to bible quotes. I heard about a girl who referred to the Harry Potter novels as the best selling books in the world about religion. Today, we taunted and teased and made these men who made us all feel unsafe in our environment. But they come back every week.

     There is no point in fanning the flames of hate. UCF is a community that comes together in hard times. So we must come together today. The first Tuesday after Thanksgiving is known as giving Tuesday. The first day in the holiday season where philanthropic giving increases, and the day most people decide to donate money to charities. The greatest thing we can do is give back to the community.

    

    Give back to UCF to support things like Knights Helping Knights Pantry, LGBTQ Services, and the Zebra Coalition Scholarship for LGBTQ Youth: https://www.ucffoundation.org/givetosdes

 

    Give to your Orlando community by donating to Covenant House, a shelter for women and children often facing homelessness, abuse, and pregnancy: https://www.blacktie-southflorida.com/online_sales/nonprofit_donation.cfm?id=35511

    We are over 60,000 strong here at UCF. Our voices are loudest together. Our voices are loudest in our actions. Our voices are loudest when we stand up for what we believe in. And we don’t even need a megaphone.

 

Photo Credits: Edward Brown UCF C'O 2021