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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


UA students call for removal of campus preachers in recent petition

Tom Price

UA preacher Brother Dean stands in the crowd in front of the Administration building on the mall on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

UA students are finding a problem with freedom of speech when it is exercised by campus preachers who wish to spread what some are calling “hate speech” on campus. Recent events have led one female student to start a petition on asking President Ann Weaver Hart to “End Sexual Harassment on U of A Campus.”

The petitioner, Ali Cummings, wrote on her Facebook on Feb. 18 that she had been sexually harassed by two preachers on the UA Mall. Cummings wrote that one man wearing a boy scout uniform called her a whore, while another man wearing a “You deserve rape!” T-shirt stood nearby, video camera in hand.

In her petition, Cummings expressed frustration at the Dean of Students Office and University of Arizona Police Department officers that, she wrote, stood by while she and other students were “wrongly singled out” by the campus preachers.

Cummings’ original post received over 1,600 shares and her petition has garnered almost 2,000 signatures.

Campus preachers create a tricky situation for administrators and law enforcement officials who are tasked with protecting students, but are also beholden to the First Amendment and decisions set forth by the Supreme Court.

Public universities must allow free speech and may only limit the time, place and manner of speech to prevent interference with the business operations of the university. For example, the UA limits sound amplification to 12-1p.m. Monday through Friday, and 5-7 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

What the university cannot regulate is the content of speech, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, which does not allow the prosecution of speech based solely on the subjects that the speech addresses.

“We cannot impose any restrictions based on the content or viewpoint of the speech offered by an individual, no matter how unfortunate or misguided,” Arizona Board of Regents President Eileen Klein wrote in a recent newsletter.

Klein’s newsletter focused on the idea of free speech zones, which some public universities have created, and recent Arizona legislature is trying to do away with.

“At Arizona’s public universities, free speech isn’t relegated to a special campus location or zone: the entire campus is a free speech zone,” Klein wrote.

The reason UAPD and the Dean of Students Office will often be found watching exchanges between students and Mall preachers is because of complaints they have received.

Kathy Adams Riester, assosciate dean of students and director of the parents & family association and the campus safety coordinator, said when this happens, typically a university official will step in.

“Someone from the Dean of Students Office, who’s First Amendment trained, will go out and assess the situation and then determine whether or not they need to do something about it,” Riester said.

As an example of a Dean of Students intervention, Riester said she has stepped into a heated crowd before to lay down guidelines.

“You can’t push people, you can’t touch people, you can’t take people’s things,” Riester said.

Last week, Riester called UAPD on the way to a meeting when she saw a Mall preacher being assaulted by a student.

However, one problem that many students have with the campus preachers is harassment toward minorities and certain religions, as well as sexual harassment toward women and members of the LGTBQ community.

Harassment, as defined in UA’s Discrimination and Non-Harassment Policy,is “unwelcome behavior, based on a protected classification, that a reasonable person would perceive to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for academic pursuits.”

When asked whether suing a campus preacher for slander could be an option, assistant professor of practice and former prosecuting attorney James Mitchell said that there would have to be an underlying investigation of the speech.

“If the guy came up to you and said ‘You deserve rape,’ then we would have to find out why he said that,” Mitchell said. “An opinion is protected, but if he’s making an allegation that can reasonably be assumed to be a factual statement about a particular person, then that person would have an action against him.”

The hard part about a slander suit is that the plaintiff has the burden of proof and anyone wishing to sue a campus preacher would need evidence that the claim the preacher is making is false, but Mitchell points out that proving such speech can be difficult.

“The factual assertion is so squishy in there that it’s just awfully difficult,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s recommendation for combating hate speech, is more speech.

In 2013, when UA students were facing similar hate messages from campus preacher and then-UA student, Dean Saxton, better known as “Brother Dean,” the Women’s Interests Collaborative put on a “You Deserve…” event in which students were given free posters that said “You Deserve…” Students then filled in the posters with what they believed others deserved.

One woman, Paola Andrea Gonzalez Martinez, wrote “You Deserve Love (Mark 12:28-34).” Martinez stood with other students near Brother Dean, sending a counter-message to the student body. The event went to receive national attention.

Today Martinez, a public health senior, said she believes the event was a success.

“I think it was successful because we were finally able to show support of victims of rape and sexual assault,” Martinez said. “Throughout the day people would come up, to me and to other people that were holding signs, that were passionate and they would say ‘thank you’ because they just, you know, were pretty tired of … all the hateful comments and signs that [Brother Dean] had had up for like weeks.”

On Thursday, groups at the Women’s Resource Center met to discuss events they might put on to support the student body.

Richard Gallon, student director of The Men’s Project and a senior studying communications and sociologyc, said those could include movie showings and discussions, or the opening up of another space on campus where students near the preachers could be invited to escape and enjoy a slice of pizza.

Gallon said that although he believes the “You Deserve…” event was effective on the campus level, he learned from his director that the national attention benefited Saxton, too.

“The more right-wing extremist people actually started donating money to him [Brother Dean] so he could continue doing the things he’s doing,” Gallon said.

Students can file complaints regarding harassment with the Dean of Students Office or the Office of Equity. Students are encouraged to call the police if they are concerned about their safety. 

Follow Michelle Jaquette on Twitter.

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