Freedom of speech came into question after the Student Government Association passed legislation Tuesday evening opposing the alleged sexually harassing comments made by recent religious protestors on campus, including Brother Jed Smock and his traveling campus ministry.
Student Body President Spencer Copeland authored the bill, to bring a sense of proactivity and safety to campus.
“Students and faculty both voiced concerns and unease after being sexually harassed,” Copeland said. “When a professor informed me of a possible legal standing to have them removed, I felt it was only right to take a stand.”
SGA’s Resolution S-15 refers to the rights granted to students under Title IX, specifically in reference to sexual harassment, several times. Although students are protected under Title IX, the protestors have yet to specifically violate those policies, according to Jeanine Bias, Associate Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator.
The protestors will be allowed on campus until they commit a direct violation of the law, which they have yet to do, Bias said.
“They are not necessarily [in violation], and there are a lot of stipulations…in order to be an actual violation of Title IX,” Bias said. “Whatever gesture [that is considered sexual harassment] has be obscene. It also has to be severe, pervasive and consistent. If it only happened on one day, it doesn’t mean that it rises to the level of being Title IX worthy.”
However, because the protestors are not student organizations or affiliated with the university at all, Title IX can only apply to them in certain circumstances.
“Title IX can [apply to non-students] in the perception of we’re trying to keep our university community safe, so if you’re in violation of our policies, then it can, but there’s other things that come into conflict with it,” Bias said.
Bias said if a student feels like they were directly targeted and violated, they should report the harassment immediately to the dean of students’ office instead of letting their experience dissolve into hearsay.
“Everybody is just in an uproar, but all I’m hearing are the words ‘sexual harassment’ without anyone coming forward and saying ‘this was my interaction with the group,’” Bias said.
Brother Jed and other religious protestors have continuously appeared on campus for more than 30 years. Although they have not been seen as a physical threat to students by Kevin Morris, Chief of University Police Department, if students ever feel threatened they can call UPD. Morris said he arrested Brother Jed in years past when one protest got out of hand.
The argument of whether or not SGA’s legislation threatens the protestor’s freedom of speech has created blurred lines for students and faculty. University spokesperson Julia May expands on what the university will do in response.
“Sam Houston State University is both sensitive and deeply committed to the concerns of our student body regarding the safety of our students,” May said. “We take sexual harassment very seriously and comply with the recently implemented Texas State University System sexual misconduct policy. As such, we are investigating these concerns in light of the need to balance both the directives of Title IX and also the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech.”
SGA senators voiced repeatedly that they are in support of free speech to a certain extent.
“I’m prior military, I fought for all of our rights, but there is a point where they crossed the line,” Chief of Staff Robert Ferguson said after Tuesday’s meeting. “That right needs to be taken away because they’re abusing it.”
SHSU alumnus Adam Key agrees with the protection of free speech but doesn’t think it should be limited in this situation.
“The main issue is that this is an obvious infringement on free speech under the guise of sexual harassment and hostile work environment,” Key said. “There’s no captive audience, they’re presenting in open spaces on state property. If people don’t like their message, they can simply walk away.”
Key points out that issues similar to this have been seen on a national scale, too.
“The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Westboro Baptist Church protesting funerals was protected speech and that was far more offensive than what they [the campus protestors] are doing,” Key said. “The day a university is not a place for protests is the day it should close its doors.”
Sophomore criminal justice major Holly Fife agrees with the protestors’ right to preach but doesn’t agree with the content.
“It closes off dialogue [for acceptance],” Fife said at Smock’s protest Tuesday. “He’s making non-Christians want to turn away and so we [Christians] don’t have that connection with people who don’t believe. We try to tell people, ‘we’re not like that, we’re the good side of it.’”
Follow The Houstonian as more information becomes available regarding university action toward the protestors.