The Quad preacher was a no-show on Wednesday, but that didn’t stop counter-protesters from calling for his removal from campus.
Tom Rayborn, of Alton, Illinois, has come to SIUE for years, standing on the Stratton Quadrangle to preach to the student body. On his permit application to SIUE, he states that his intent is to “preach the Gospel, talk with students about religious topics, [and] distribute religious material.”
Students have complained that Rayborn uses a megaphone to insult students, calling them “demons” and stating that they are going to hell.
Freshman Elly Bollinger and a few other students held a demonstration on Oct. 16 that was intended as a silent counter-protest to Rayborn, but became contentious. Other students joined them, then engaged in yelling back and forth with Rayborn, Bollinger said.
“We don’t think he should be able to shout at students like that,” Bollinger said. “It’s verbal harassment, and we should be able to feel comfortable on our own campus.”
Some students migrated to the Rock, where Rayborn continued shouting back at them. No physical violence took place, Bollinger said, but the shouting became aggressive.
As word spread of last week’s incident, at least two groups of students gathered on Wednesday for a much larger protest and to pass a petition calling for the university to rescind Rayborn’s permit.
Alex Aultman, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at SIUE said it’s the university’s responsibility to make them feel safe on campus.
“Hearing this man preach about how I’m going to hell every Wednesday on my way to class does not make me feel safe or accepted on this campus,” Aultman said.
Several students wore horns as a deliberate counter-protest to Rayborn’s alleged calls that gay students are “demons,” and several wore capes and flags for gay pride, pansexual, nonbinary and bisexual pride, among others.
Protest signs included “God is love” and “We shouldn’t have hate at home.” Several chalk drawings across the quad quoted Biblical passages such as “Love thy neighbor” and “Hatred stirs up conflict but love covers all wrongs” — as well as a goose with a pride flag.
Protest co-organizer Kimberly Hickman said SIUE is a campus of diversity and Rayborn’s message violates that tradition.
“He has decided to speak about how he hates the gays and every other religion is false,” Hickman said. “We’re trying to bring awareness that there’s a number of students … that don’t think he should be allowed on campus to spread these hateful views, and we would like to see — not necessarily him off campus, although that would be great, but at least him without the megaphone on campus.”
Two petitions were circulating Wednesday: one from the Gay-Straight Alliance and one from the Philosophy Club.
“We want to make sure the university hears us,” Aultman said. “We have to walk through the quad every [Wednesday] hearing this man spewing hate. We’re not protesting religion, we are protesting the fact that he is using his religion to spread hate.”
University policy states that “demonstrative activity” is permitted on the quad in accordance with the First Amendment under certain guidelines. Among them are requirements that off-campus individuals must apply for a permit, the demonstration does not obstruct traffic or access, disrupt university business with excessive noise or threaten public safety.
Public safety is the focus of one of the petitions, arguing that Rayborn’s statements about LGBTQ+ students constitute a threat to their safety.
Junior Mina Mathenia believes that Rayborn’s message violates rule four of the campus’s demonstration policy, which states that protests may not create a “clear and present threat to public safety.”
“I think his words count as hate speech, and that that’s against what the campus stands for,” Mathenia said.
Rich Walker, vice chancellor for administration, said that earlier in the semester, university officials listened to Rayborn’s speech with legal counsel and SIUE police, and did not hear anything that could be construed as a threat or hate speech.
“True, we haven’t listened to 100 percent of all of his speeches, so there may be content that we haven’t encountered,” Walker said.
Walker said that as an “intellectual, diverse and inclusive community,” the university needs to respect differences and disagree in a respectful manner.
“It pains me whenever someone — a young person especially — is targeted with messages that don’t come from a place of caring or respect,” Walker said. “So many people get it wrong, and I am saddened when anyone feels somehow lessened because of someone else’s detestable words. Still, we can be a stronger university because of a healthy dialogue.”
Walker said that there was video and audio footage from Oct. 16, which has been reviewed by university officials. Unfortunately, he said, it was the counter-protesters who “acted inappropriately by cussing at him and flipping him off.” He said some observers were up close to Rayborn and yelling expletives in his face, which some witnesses verified.
Walker said that over time, the university has narrowed Rayborn’s permitted physical space, reduced the equipment and volume of his equipment and asked SIUE police to have an officer on site whenever he speaks.
“We’ve met with him numerous times about his rhetoric, and I have personally sat and listened to his remarks,” Walker said. “But unless he breaks the law, he is free to speak his opinions – far outside our own beliefs and values as they may be.”
Rayborn was not present on Wednesday despite having an approved permit for his usual Wednesday protest. However, when reached by email, he said he was “out of town this week at four campuses.”
The Alestle was not able to speak extensively with Rayborn at the time of publication.
At least five SIUE Police officers were present on Wednesday, remaining outside the main quad circle and observing the protest.
SIUE Police Chief Kevin Schmoll said that police activity on Oct. 16 was limited to an unrelated incident: At the same time as Rayborn’s protest, a Collinsville man came on the quad wearing a helmet and carrying a shield in the shape of a white cross. He also had a bag that contained two pairs of nunchucks, which are not a banned weapon on campus. The man allegedly said he used them to “fight Lucifer,” and told police he was there to register for classes, Schmoll said.
The man was removed from campus and put on a bus back to Collinsville. Schmoll said he did not know the man’s name.