Messages of Prejudice, Intimidation Unwelcome on College Campuses

Editorial Board

When morning classes broke for lunch Wednesday, students funneled out of academic buildings onto North Professor Street to the sight of demonstrators holding large signs emblazoned with the words “Fear God” and “Ask Me Why You Deserve Hell.” In front of Peters Hall, a graying woman preached about the dangers of premarital sex to an incredulous crowd of passersby, brandishing a long pole adorned with what appeared to be bloodied menstrual products. Throughout the afternoon, the demonstrators — members of the Campus Ministry USA, led by George “Jed” Smock — occupied the sidewalk, eliciting a wide range of responses, from laughter and heckling to civil conversations to angry verbal altercations and several calls to Oberlin Safety and Security. The preachers’ message: that Oberlin College’s “sodomites,” “vixens,” “feminists,” “lesbians,” “non-Christians” and various other groups are sinners — and that they should be very, very afraid.

It’s not the first time similar demonstrations have occurred at Oberlin. Traveling preachers of various denominations periodically make stops here, often attempting to engage students in prayer, verse or song as they pass through public areas of campus. The Campus Ministry, for its part, is well-known for its aggressive style of demonstration, and according to its website, the group visits college campuses daily in its quest to “declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the college and university students of America and the world.” Smock, known as “Brother Jed,” is infamous for his attempts to incite fear and repentance in a style he terms “confrontational Evangelism.” The group’s website glorifies him as a “campus legend,” himself once a sinful college student at Indiana State University, now redeemed. Perhaps most strikingly, the site claims that the preacher has continued his mission for over four decades out of an unfailing “love for the students.”

The problem with CMUSA’s narrative of love and salvation, however, is that it fits into a larger narrative of hate and prejudice — a narrative whose wounds lie close to the surface in places like Oberlin. The culture of progressive acceptance that many members of Oberlin’s community strive to maintain provides a safe haven for students of marginalized identities. Despite ample reminders of this protective environment’s permeability — from daily microaggressions to the slew of targeted hate speech that made national headlines in March 2013 — the existence of such an environment, however imperfect or fleeting, is crucial in empowering these students and in enabling them to develop the necessary tools to confront their oppressors and fight for change.

Jed Smock is entitled to his beliefs, and he has every legal right to pursue his line of work. For this reason, he is as welcome at Oberlin College as any other visitor. His hateful messages, however, are not. To intimidate religious and sexual minorities, no matter how noble the intent, is to disparage members of historically disenfranchised communities based on character and identity. It is unequivocal, unacceptable hate speech.

The question we raise when incidents of hate speech occur on college campuses is not one of legality. The question is not whether the events represent the harsh realities of American society, nor is it whether students, supposedly sheltered by their insular campus environments, must learn to face these realities. The question is whether hate speech, constitutionally protected or otherwise, should be allowed to stand. The Editorial Board believes it should not.

When Smock and his adherents finally departed North Professor Street, a cardboard sign lay in the grass that read, “Hatred is not funny and does not deserve an audience.” Though crowds lingered throughout the afternoon, the sign’s message did not go unnoticed. Students’ interactions with the protesters varied from passive observation to active confrontation, and we feel unqualified to hold up any particular response to the demonstration as “right” or “wrong.” However, we were heartened to see a broad range of students united in a singular message — that CMUSA’s actions are prejudiced, misguided and harmful. It is this message, we hope, that Oberlin students will carry forward.