After weeks of escalating protests on Wednesdays, the university held a town hall meeting to discuss Stratton Quadrangle regular “Pastor Tom” and university policies around speakers on campus.
Tom Rayborn, known by most at SIUE as “Pastor Tom,” comes to campus most Wednesdays to preach his interpretation of Christianity. Some campus community members believe Rayborn’s messages contain hate speech and therefore gather every Wednesday to protest Rayborn being on campus. Rayborn allegedly called a transgender student a “demon,” and his messages frequently include talk of hell.
Chancellor Randy Pembrook said he met with Gay-Straight Alliance leaders the week before the town hall meeting and afterward decided to use the meeting to ask the campus community for suggestions on what changes students, faculty and staff would like to see implemented.
The meeting was broken up into small-group discussions, with tables consisting of a mix of students, faculty, staff and administrators. There were also copies of the university’s Expressive Action Policy and a First Amendment pamphlet on each table.
While the protests originated as a silent protest from some GSA members, other people have begun protesting as well. Last week, some protesters shouted “Your hate is not welcome here” at Rayborn, seemingly in an attempt to be louder than him.
Associate Director of Residence Life Rex Jackson said that as a gay man, he’s had rhetoric like Rayborn’s directed at him before, and he felt dealing with issues like this is an unfortunate part of growing up.
“I’d rather [students] experience this here where we can have this conversation,” Jackson said.
Jackson also said Rayborn being on campus gives students the ability to learn how to protest and voice their opinions in a more controlled environment so that they’re prepared to do so after they leave college.
Since SIUE is a public university, it must comply with the First Amendment. In turn, university administrators cannot make restrictions about expression on campus based on the speakers’ content.
As long as a speaker is not inciting violence or fitting the legal definition of harassment, hate speech is usually covered under the First Amendment. Because of that, Pembrook said the SIUE is constrained in the actions it can take.
“We’re under some constraints, and I think that’s a hard thing to understand, particularly when you’re upset by things,” Pembrook said.
Vice Chancellor for Administration Rich Walker said there was value in allowing open expression on campus, even if that came in the form of hate speech.
“It can either solidify your own beliefs — and there are students and faculty who are very supportive of the preacher on the Quad and his message. It also gives you the option to debate or challenge your own beliefs, so you can either confirm your own beliefs, challenge them and say ‘No, I really don’t believe that’ or give you the opportunity to do a peaceful counter-protest,” Walker said. “I’m all for all of those things. But the moment we start restricting what people have to say — censoring, whether it’s speech, or lyrics, or books — it’s the same result. That’s a very dangerous path to go down, in my opinion.”
Many of the questions posed to the groups focused around the use of amplification on university grounds.
However, if the university banned the use of amplification outright, that could have far-ranging effects that go beyond Rayborn or the protesters — whatever restrictions exist in a new policy would apply to everyone on campus, not just Rayborn.
For example, if there was a total ban on amplification, student organizations would be unable to use amplifiers and speakers to play music during their events on campus.
Jackson suggested taking a similar approach to the University of Missouri — St. Louis’s free speech policy. Under UMSL’s policy, members of the general public cannot use any amplification.
“I think it was UMSL that has a policy, and I could be wrong or misinterpreting it, that there is no amplification unless it is a university-sponsored event,” Jackson said. “So, if a student group wanted an outside speaker that they wanted to sponsor then there could be amplification, but Joe Schmo is out of luck.”
A number of groups suggested moving the area where outside speakers, like Rayborn, reserve space to another place on campus, such as the Builders of University Plaza.
However, Walker said in his opinion the university could make someone from outside the campus community speak at any specific location as long as they’re outdoors and not interfering with the university’s business.
“If we had an outside homecoming and someone wanted to set up something out there, but [Rayborn] would prohibit that event from happening, we can restrict that,” Walker said. “But I can’t tell someone ‘You’re free to have all the speech you want, as long as you go out into the woods.’”
Despite that, Walker said there were some changes that could be made. Among those changes were the change of scheduling policies and the use of bullhorns.
“I want to make sure that the faculty, staff and students have the first priority in reserving space if they want to do something,” Walker said. “Even though I only book it a month at a time, maybe there’s something there we can look at.”
Despite his reservations about some of the suggestions, Walker said there was still room to make changes to the policies.
“I think there’s room for tweaking it. It may not go as far as some people want it to go, because any time we put a restriction on one group, it’s gonna be applied to everyone, and I don’t think that’s what they really want,” Walker said.
For now, Pembrook and his staff will be going through the suggestions and seeing what they think they should implement. After that, Pembrook said he expects the university will host another town hall meeting.
“Nobody has said [another town hall would be held], but it seemed logical that when we have some ideas … [we can] get together again and see how people react to those ideas,” Pembrook said.
The timeline for any sort of change is still not solidified.
Pembrook said he does not think there will be any changes before the start of the spring semester, partially because there is not a lot of time between the time Thanksgiving break ends and when students leave campus for winter break.
Students looking for support or to voice their concerns can visit Counseling Services, the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion the GSA or a religious group on campus.