Administrators at Mississippi State University (MSU) offered the rest of the country a lesson in upholding free speech last week when an off-campus group with an anti-gay message clashed with gay rights supporters on campus.
The Reflector, MSU’s student paper, reported yesterday that tensions between Consuming Fire Fellowship, a Mississippi-based Christian group, and student members of MSU’s LGBTQ+ Union grew over the course of Consuming Fire’s three-day demonstration, which began last Tuesday on MSU’s Drill Field.
LGBTQ+ Union president Bailey McDaniel said members of her group were upset, and some discussed filing formal harassment charges against Consuming Fire members who approached them. The paper explained:
According to McDaniel, two members of the Consuming Fire Fellowship, in particular, continually approached the student protesters directly to confront them about their salvation, telling the students they personally were sodomites and going to hell.
McDaniel said she had to intercede on behalf of several students to ask the church members to respect their silent, peaceful protest and leave them alone, to which one church member responded using a derogatory homosexual term referring to a student.
MSU administrators took several safety precautions, including erecting barricades on the field, but told The Reflector that protesters from both sides had the right to speak freely:
MSU Police Chief Vance Rice said … there was little the police could do for the students at the time regarding Consuming Fire complaints.
“The things that were being said to them (by Consuming Fire) were horrible, but from what the students described, it was all protected speech and was not illegal,” Rice said. “The easiest solution we could give them was to tell them to walk away.”
Regina Hyatt, vice president of student affairs at MSU, said maintaining free speech on campus is important.
“The law is pretty clear, in terms of what public colleges and universities can do as it relates to the expression of speech on campus,” Hyatt said. “The prevailing thought is that colleges and universities have to be open as the ‘marketplace of ideas.’”
Over the years, FIRE has responded to numerous allegations that colleges and universities have unconstitutionally repressed protected protests on campus. Here are just a few of the many examples:
- In 2010, FIRE teamed with the ACLU of San Diego to contest Southwestern College’s ousting of four professors after they allegedly incited students to protest beyond the limits of the school’s tiny, “free speech patio.”
- That same year, Tarrant County College banned a symbolic “empty holster” protest in which students were told they couldn’t wear the holsters in support of concealed carry laws, and were told to confine expressive activity to a free speech zone a mere twelve feet in diameter.
- Earlier this year, the University of Toledo worked with FIRE to draft new, constitutional policies, after police officers prevented students from holding signs peacefully protesting a 2014 appearance by political strategist Karl Rove.
We here at FIRE applaud MSU for upholding the constitution, and for championing free expression on its campus.
Photo: Taylor Bowden, The Reflector