Bound Hands: GVSU Unable to ban preachers from campus

GVL / Courtesy - Gabriella Patti
Religious Gatherings

GVL / Courtesy – Gabriella Patti Religious Gatherings

gabriella patti

By Gabriella Patti

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Jennifer Knickerbocker was walking to class on Friday, Aug. 29 when she noticed a crowd gathering around the Transformational Link.

Knickerbocker and other veteran Grand Valley State University students were not surprised to see the commotion caused by The Campus Ministry USA wielding signs that said “Repent or Perish” and “Fear God and Keep His Commandments.”

Knickerbocker stopped to encourage other students to continue moving and avoid antagonizing the group.

In return, members of The Campus Ministry USA began to speak to her.

“They said, ‘Hey blue hair what’s your problem? The way you treat your body is why you are going to commit suicide and be the next Robin Williams.’ Another student cut in and said she had no right to say those sorts of things to me. I walked away,” Knickerbocker said.

The Campus Ministries USA, founded by Brother Jed Smock, has been appearing on college campuses in all 50 states for more than 40 years. They have made a five hour long appearance at GVSU every Friday before Labor Day for four years.

“We tell students that they must turn away from all sin and follow Jesus Christ who is the only way to salvation,” Smock said.

Vice Provost of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Bart Merkle encourages students to ignore the group and continue on their way to class. The university has designated two free speech zones on campus; the Transformational Link on south campus and the Carillon Area Clock Tower by Kirkhof Center.

“These are high-traffic areas where the whole sidewalk is designed to be able to move traffic well,” Merkle said. “This enables (the) university to go around them.”

Merkle said that as a public university, GVSU is required by law to abide by the Constitution. In this case, the First Amendment, pertaining to free speech, certainly applies.

“That sort of means that people have the freedom to say what they want to, no matter how intolerant, hateful (or) objectionable they may be,” Merkle said.

Many students were shocked by the presence of the group on campus. Some responded by playing loud music and yelling back with arguments or taunts.

“I was on my way to class, and that was about two hours ago,” said freshman Eric Spohr. “I missed my writing class for this. It caught my attention just how they are trying to catch our’s by saying ridiculous things.”

Smock said that he is encouraged by the students’ behavior.

“That they trouble themselves to make a sign and come out and protest us tells me down deep in their conscience they know that we are right,” Smock said. “But they don’t do what is right. They want to live a life of self-indulgence instead of a life of self-denial.”

Smock said that they never personally target students.

“We don’t just choose people haphazardly out of the crowd and accuse them of things, but they usually initiate something,” Smock said.

According to Knickerbocker’s account, Smock’s statement assumes that Knickerbocker initiated something by telling students to move on.

Knickerbocker has filed a bias incident report with the university, however Merkle said that in cases such as these there is very little that the university can do.

“If an individual can walk by and continue on their way and all the group is doing is speaking then there is not a whole lot that they can do,” he said.

Merkle said that the university has to be very careful to not sensor someone’s freedom to express themselves no matter how intolerant and hateful it may be. If the report is only about speech, the most that the university can do is address the person who spoke in a perceivably hateful manner and question their intentions.

“Public institutions must abide by the First Amendment,” he said. “We have to be very careful not to sensor someone’s freedom to express themselves unless it steps beyond speech.”

Knickerbocker disagrees, saying that she believes that GVSU could potentially do more.

“There needs to be a multiple strike system,” Knickerbocker said. “Three strikes and you are out. Everyone has a right to free speech but if these people are taking it on themselves to switch to hate speech then they should be asked to leave. Grand Valley is our home and we shouldn’t be insulted like that.”