For Jodi Howell, an AP Language and Composition teacher at West Albany High School, the street preachers who come to Oregon State University every spring were nothing new.
As part of her class, Howell’s students visit OSU for an annual all-day research orientation in The Valley Library, where they gather sources and learn about the library’s resources. This field trip has coincided with the visiting street preachers for the past three years.
“When [the students] came and said ‘You have to come look,’ I knew exactly what it was,” Howell said.
Street preachers have spoken on the OSU campus for multiple decades, drawing large crowds and prompting criticism for their particular interpretation of the Bible. These preachers routinely criticize students for engaging in premarital sex or same-sex relationships, among other activities they describe as immoral.
According to Howell, the preachers and the crowds that they attracted in front of the library were a distraction for her students. When she realized that some students were taking too long to come back from lunch, she found them outside watching the preachers engage in debate.
“It kind of riled them up and that’s all they could focus on, some were disturbed, some were mad,” Howell said.
Howell encouraged students not to engage with the street preachers. As she was leaving the library with her nearly 90 high schoolers, a preacher approached the group and tried to talk to some students. According to Howell, the man “Wasn’t very pleasant,” when she asked him to leave the students alone because he was making them nervous.
“I think they got uncomfortable because all eyes turned to them, so that’s when I stepped in,” Howell said.
Because of the university’s principles of freedom of expression, the preachers that Howell and her class saw were not in violation of any rules. According to Steve Clark, vice president for University Relations and Marketing, exceptions to free speech on the OSU campus are limited.
According to Clark, regardless of the topic or nature of the speakers on campus, including preachers, Oregon State has freedom of expression principles that enable the right to free expression speech and assembly by the public.
Those who wish to protest on campus must follow the university’s “Time, Place, and Manner Rules for Speech Activities” policy. These rules state that speech activities are permitted in the university’s public areas, excluding inside classrooms, laboratories, the library and any area or building designated for authorized access only. Speech activities are not allowed to be unreasonably disruptive, and notification of planned speech activities must be given 24 hours in advance.
“Freedom of speech does not extend to specific threats of violence against individuals, and free speech cannot be exercised in ways that significantly disrupt the operation of the university or the legal rights of others,” Clark said via email.
After this experience, Howell had a discussion with her students about what they had seen. She said that while most of them were not discouraged from attending OSU, some were concerned about what college would be like.
“That was the first time many of them had really dealt with this type of situation,” Howell said via email. “This was an academic setting, and I think it was a moment of realization for them, they would soon enter college campuses where they’ll encounter more mature events and discussions above and beyond the academic climate.”
According to Clark, the university believes that debate between individuals with differing and even controversial opinions should always be allowed.
“At OSU, we recognize that freedom of expression comes with a responsibility to always allow debate and discussion where ideas and opinions are shared freely and openly,” Clark said. “We also believe and adhere to principles at OSU where differing ideas are listened to with respect and a willingness to understand, even when a contrasting view prompts a strong emotional response.”
If she had a choice, Howell says that she would move the field trip to a different day to avoid the situation.
“‘I would probably try to navigate around that if I could because it’s a big distraction to their work, but it certainly doesn’t stop of us from coming since that’s the way the schedule tends to work out,” Howell said in an email.