August 29, 2007

A lesson in free speech - Preaching, protest featured at Morehead State University

For the last two days, students at Morehead State University have been engaged in one of the epic battles of American democracy.

It began on Tuesday, when followers of a Christian organization named Soul Winners Ministries International arrived on campus.

The group, which has about six members, found MSU’s free speech area and began to speak.

What happened next depends on who you ask.

Soul Winners member Michael Venyah, who would not give a hometown, said his organization has been preaching the gospel in Kentucky and decided to visit Morehead. He said the group didn’t have one particular message.

“Our only desire is to love and preach God,” he said.

Another member, who gave his name only as J.K., said the message he was spreading was “Repent and believe the gospel and live by the teachings of the Bible.”

That message, however, wasn’t well received by many students at MSU who turned out by the dozen at the free speech area on Tuesday and Wednesday to exercise their own First Amendment rights.

Many said they witnessed the group heckling students, pointing out individuals as they passed, yelling at them to repent or face eternal damnation.

“Their message was ‘Everyone is going to go to hell.’ It doesn’t matter who it was,” said senior Gena Combs, 22, of Hazard.

“I don’t feel bad about them being here,” Combs said, adding she was singled out from the crowd and heckled. “I’m upset about the atmosphere,” which she described as “violent” and “negative.”

“I’m all for civil liberties and freedom of speech, but I think this qualifies as hate speech and harassment,” said junior Brian Stephens, 20, of Sandy Hook.

Stephens is openly gay and a member of the Kentucky Equality Federation, a statewide political action group that advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kentuckians.

“I go to school here peacefully. I don’t want people telling me I’m going to hell because I’m gay. I’m here to get an education,” he said, referencing a shirt worn by Venyah’s wife, Tamika, that read “No homos go to heaven.”

Stephens said he helped to organize the student counterprotest by posting an event to Facebook.

“Our plan was to encircle them and either play music or sing so they couldn’t be heard,” he said. They intended, he said, to send a message of love and peace.

“I don’t think our campus needs a violent atmosphere, and it’s not violent until people come along and start preaching hate,” he said.

Freshman Steven Osborne, 18, of Morehead, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he too was offended by the group and showed up to protest, but for a very different reason.

“It’s insulting what they are doing,” he said. “(They are) chasing people away instead of bringing them in.”

The message should have been one of unity, he said, suggesting “Love one another” instead.

Junior Rocky Johnston, 23, of Somerset, who was sporting a “Mormon Boy” T-shirt and holding a well-worn Bible, said he joined the students counterprotest for similar reasons.

“I serve the mission and I know the message well,” he said. “Their message goes completely against what Jesus taught — love and forgiveness. We showed up to tell them God is love.”

J.K. denied the group was heckling individuals and said the crowd of students turned on him and his companions instead. As he headed to his car to leave campus, a police officer trailing him, he said: “We felt God told us to come here. Obviously we came to the right place.”

Venyah agreed the majority of students on campus was not receiving the group’s message. But he shrugged off the students’ actions.

“Sometimes people protest — as they did the prophets,” he said. Opposition is irrelevant.”

MSU professor of history John Ernst had a similiar opinion.

“I think it’s good and healthy,” he said, of the events. “It gets the students engaged and riled up. Free speech is one of the foundations of our country. Democracy is wonderful. It’s messy, though.”

Soul Winners was expected to return to the campus’ free speech center at 11 a.m. today. Stephens said students planned to fill the area ahead of time.

“I’m definitely coming back,” Osborne said.

“To let them know there is a better way to do it,” added Johnston.