Hate, extreme speech allowed at MSU despite push back from some
He approaches students on their way to and from class, attempting to bring them to the Lord. He grasps a sign firmly, expressing his beliefs, with the word “hell” accented in blood red font.
His young daughter stands by his side, holding a sign similar to his. They vary from one to several people preaching outside of Wells Hall. He locks eyes with students walking past and encourages them to talk to him about God and their lifestyle.
He preaches the word to them, prays over them, and hands out bibles.
The First Amendment gives Pastor Michael Venyah and others the right to stand outside of Wells and preach or say whatever they want.
There is some debate as to whether or not there is a point when freedom of speech should no longer be honored. Students are protected under this right. Universities have their own policies on freedom of speech and how it is practiced on campus.
“Michigan State is wholly dedicated to freedom of speech, not just as a public institution, but as an institution of higher education,” according to MSU’s free speech website. “Here, ideas—not people—are meant to clash and to be evaluated based on their merits.”
Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. White nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at MSU on March 5. Spencer was first denied access to speaking on campus due to safety concerns, but the university eventually allowed him to speak. He came to the MSU Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education during spring break to minimize safety concerns.
People like Spencer and Venyah speaking in public has sparked the question: how much free speech should be allowed on campus?
Faculty and administration response
MSU worked to come up with neutral locations during the Spencer rally for the sake of students’ safety and to prevent disruptive activity. They chose an environment for him to speak that would be as safe as possible for the community, MSU Vice President and university spokesperson Emily Guerrant said.
“While the university rejects the group’s divisive and racist messages we understand that as a public institution we cannot prohibit groups or individuals speaking in public forums,” Guerrant said.
The university steps in when there are safety concerns, one of the limited exceptions to restricting free speech.
“MSU supports and encourages freedom of speech in all instances,” Guerrant said.
Free speech is something not one person should have control over or should be defined by a person in power, journalism professor and Editor in Residence Joe Grimm said. It is something that is protected by the constitution and it should not be hindered, even if the majority does not agree with what is being said, Grimm said.
“I think we do not have a good definition of hate speech,” Grimm said. “I am very afraid who gets to decide what is hate speech, and when we will get to the point when they make people stop talking and silence their voices.”
If someone says something is vile, they still have the right to express their opinion, Grimm said.
“A public university is in many ways a government institution, so you have this problem where the constitution protects something that is there for all of us, that is the right to say what we want,” Grimm said. “And then you have people who want to take advantage of that by saying things that they are allowed to say, but are stupid, that are hateful, destructive.”
He said he is afraid of what might happen if every person gets to decide what speech should and should not be free.
“We cannot run around and have every city, every township, every county, every state, every university make up their own rules for what is hate speech,” he said. “We are talking about a federal constitutional amendment. I think it has to be decided in the courts.”
Grimm said he thinks the university held Spencer’s visit at the best time and best location, as not many people were on campus at the time. The smart thing to do is stay away if you do not agree with what someone is saying, Grimm said.
“I don’t think many people heard his (Spencer’s) message, and I don’t think anyone was surprised by it,” Grimm said. “He was not really breaking new ground there, and not may people heard him speak, and that is fine with me.”
Students on Campus
Freedom of speech affects journalism junior Claire Postelli’s education and what she is able to write about.
“I love being able to see both sides of the story and making sure I am informing myself through the biases,” Postelli said.
Postelli does not think censorship is justified, and threats and extreme hate speech can still be voiced by others, she said. However, she said she thinks the platforms and ways of communication should be restricted.
“When it comes to threats or extreme hate speech, while people can still voice that due to our freedom of speech, I think when it comes to the platforms they are involved in, that is when the censorship can happen,” Postelli said.
MSU is honoring free speech the best it can as an institution and letting every side of the argument be expressed, Postelli said. But Postelli did not agree with MSU’s decision to allow Spencer to speak at the university. It should not have given him access to that platform, Postelli said.
“Yes, these opinions can be expressed, and they are expressed, and they do exist, but as a university what are you saying when you allow hate speech to come here, and what do you say when people are arrested at those times,” Postelli said.
Visitors on Campus
Venyah of Soul Winners Fellowship Church stands outside of Wells Hall from time to time with others from his congregation to preach to students as they walk by. They often hold up signs expressing their mission. He has faced opposition for sharing his beliefs with other students.
He is within the university’s policy and his rights under the First Amendment to stand outside and voice his message to students.
“Freedom of speech is very important,” Venyah said. “It is a biblical mandate and a constitutional right.”
Postelli said those who stand outside of Wells have the right to hold up signs, but when they approach others is where they need to alter their practices. When they bring up hard topics, they should ask for the other person’s permission to proceed before diving into the topic, because they might not want to be a part of that conversation, Postelli said.
“I think it is always important when you are bringing up hard topics to ask for consent,” Postelli said. “So, them holding signs is fine, but when they engage with other people, they should say, ‘Hey, is it OK for you if I bring up something that might be a little bit hard?’”
Venyah said some students have blatantly expressed they did not agree with what they were doing. Some have escalated to accounts of physical violence — he said he has been hit and choked by people who did not like what he said. People have called the police on him as he was preaching the gospel on campus, he said.
The police used to try to put a stop to what he was doing, Venyah said, but now he feels his right to freedom of speech is more respected and more enforced.
“MSU, I believe, in general is legally tolerant of it now,” Venyah said. “They used to try to stop us.”
Within the last 10 years, he has seen more tolerance toward him preaching on campus. He would not agree if someone tried to stop him from speaking what he believed in, he said. It is unconstitutional, he said.
“A complaint is not a reason to violate the constitution,” Venyah said. “Anyone can complain about something that they do not like, that does not mean it is invalid.”