Free speech or hate speech?

Story by Eric Christenson

There’s nothing like a little fire and brimstone to warm up a chilly September day.

George Edward Smock, also known as Brother Jed, brought his version of evangelism to the UW-Eau Claire campus mall Tuesday, but faced silent protest from many student organizations including Forward Momentum, the College Free Thought Society and College Feminists.

Brother Jed is an evangelical minister and the founder ofCampus Ministry USA. Known for taking his confrontational style of preaching at college campuses across the country, he comments in an open forum about college students, women, homosexuals and non-Christians.

According to his website, his purpose is “to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the college and university students of America and the world. The skeptics on the campuses are constantly condemning God and justifying their unbelief.”

During past visits on campus, many students reacted to Brother Jed’s sermons by shouting back and arguing with him.

Junior Brandon Guderian acknowledged that both parties deserve to have their voices heard regardless of content.

“He has the right to do it, but he’s going to be met with lots of resistance,” he said. “And (the student’s) rights, too, are to meet him with resistance.”

However, after learning of Brother Jed’s plans to come to Eau Claire, student protesters were ready to meet him head on. Upon his arrival, they were quick to create a barrier of signs surrounding him and circled around him for the entire time he preached.

Issues on whether Brother Jed’s preaching is considered free speech or hate speech were hot topics of conversation during his sermon.

Jed’s daughter, Martha Smock, 19, who held signs in support of her father’s beliefs, doesn’t think so.

“I don’t believe that he hates. My dad has done this for 37 years,” she said. “He could go and be a professional and do anything, but I think that he loves you enough to come out here and warn you that you’re going to hell.”

Brother Jed’s speaking could be considered hate speech and many of his comments could be considered seditious, but Steven Fink, assistant professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, said it seems to go against basic Christian principles.

“If indeed the idea of love is at the core of the Christian gospel it seems counterproductive on the part of Brother Jed to use such inflammatory comments,” he said.

Early on, Brother Jed moved to a new location a few meters away, but the protesters stuck with him. There were very few people who agreed with him, but he kept preaching.

“He doesn’t have a lot of people on his side at all,” Guderian said. “I think it’s tough when you bring in the Bible and religion because it’s kind of a slippery slope.”

University Police was also present at the scene, which University Police Chief David Sprick said was necessary in case the protest became physical.

“In the event that somebody makes direct threats, they’re not necessarily protected by First Amendment Freedom of Speech,” he said. “That’s where there might need to be some intervention to prevent what’s been a peaceful event from escalating into something more dangerous.”

The event remained peaceful throughout the day.

Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich arrived in the afternoon to commend the students’ efforts and shook their hands.

“I think the best thing to do is to counteract free speech with free speech,” he said, “and that’s what our student’s are doing a great example of right here.”