Campus Free Speech Law Leads To Protests, Violence At UTSA
Students at public universities around Texas say they already see and feel the impact of a new state law intended to expand free speech rights. With few exceptions, the law prohibits officials at public universities from controlling speech in outdoor common spaces.
When Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 18 into law, he made Texas the 17th state to enact some kind of campus free speech legislation. This comes after an executive order signed by President Trump that restricts federal funding for universities that moderate free speech.
Cindy and Jed Smock are evangelical preachers from Indiana who just wrapped up a tour of Texas campuses, including UT-San Antonio. They partner with other preachers and often come to campuses with a four to six-member group. SB18 has allowed them to tread on new ground.
In a video posted to Facebook, Cindy Smock said, “Here we are at a new campus — the University of Texas San Antonio. Remember the Alamo. A bunch of wild Mexicans here wanting to kill us.”
A large group of students surrounded the couple, chanting, “Get them out. Get them out.” A ring of UTSA police officers stood between the students and the preachers.
“You can become real men, like me — like Jesus — like Donald Trump,” yelled Jed Smock.
TPR reached the Smocks by phone after the couple had left Texas.
“[SB18] had a big impact,” Jed Smock said. “I’ve been coming to Texas since 1976. I was never able to preach on campus at University of Texas at Austin or at University of Texas in San Antonio.”
The couple has traveled to all 50 states over the past four decades preaching their interpretation of the Gospel.
The Smocks proselytize at public universities because, they said, college students are the future leaders of the United States.
They often use provocative tactics to get attention. Jed Smock sometimes holds a sign that reads “Anus Awareness,” which he claims uses humor to raise awareness against what he believes shouldn’t qualify as a “sexual organ.”
The Smocks said their message is intended for all students and that their condemnation of same-sex relationships comes along with denunciation of drug and alcohol use, the practice of non-Christian religions, premarital sex and other behavior.
“We're not Westboro Baptist Church. We're not on campus to protest homosexuality,” Cindy Smock said. “It's mainly the homosexuals that make it an issue when we're there.”
Many students who heard these messages — especially LGBT+ students — said the speech can be alienating and hurtful.
Xenia Flowers is a senior at UTSA and the secretary of Spectrum, UTSA’s LGBT+ student group.
“I tend to have pretty thick skin when it comes to things like this,” Flowers said. “But the reason why I go out and protest is because I can just imagine what it would be like to say be somebody who's closeted gay hearing those things.”
Before the Smocks began preaching, a UTSA student group held a protest calling for a $15 hourly wage for student workers. When the Smocks arrived, the group refocused their protest on the messages delivered by the Smocks’ group. Flowers joined the counterprotest.
“Obviously we can't prevent them from having their free speech on campus due to the law,” Flowers said. “But I just at least want to let people know that they're there so that they can avoid them, if they need to.”
Linus Owens is an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont. He said there is some tension between certain free speech and different interpretations of inclusivity.
“Free expression becomes about inclusivity of ideas and ideologies,” he said. “But the activist side tends to privilege kind of an embodied inclusivity that is of people, groups, communities, etc.”
Free speech arguments often create cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, there's the marketplace of ideas, where speech is meant to be heard without censorship. On the other hand, safe spaces exist as a means of protection for people who may otherwise be discriminated against.
The Smocks are acutely aware of that tension.
“And of course, the prevailing philosophy on campus is multiculturalism or pluralism, where you can't say one philosophy or one religion is better than another,” Jed Smock said. “And we’re not only saying is Christianity better, we're saying it's the only way.”
The couple said it’s important for their free speech to be protected, even in spaces where it isn’t welcome.
“The First Amendment protects offensive speech,” Cindy Smock said. “Regular speech does not need to be protected. If somebody is not offended or feeling excluded or feeling put down or disagreeing, then that speech doesn't need to be protected.”
And this type of speech has always been legal in the United States, but until recently, some public universities had certain restrictions for outside groups. According to UTSA, SB18 has barred universities from enforcing those restrictions.
Owens said people often forget that many students call campus home, and that they have to pay to be on a campus that doesn’t feel safe.
“People can feel unsafe without violence being threatened to them,” Owens said. “I think that those concerns have to be not dismissed. They have to be taken quite seriously.”
And at UTSA, the speech did turn into violence.
In a video posted to Twitter, Jed Smock shoved a student to the ground after she knocked his phone out of his hands. Three students told TPR that another member of the Smocks’ group punched two other students.
In a written statement, UTSA acknowledged the concerns of its students, but also said it’s important for the university to “foster a culture of tolerance for the opinions of others, even when they may be offensive or disturbing.”
This year, Cindy and Jed Smock have visited UTSA, University of Texas at Austin, Texas State University, Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Sam Houston State University and Stephen F. Austin State University. They said they’re done in Texas for now, but plan on coming back next year.
Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.