Junior psychology and sociology dual major Lisa Tischio said she approached a religion-based speaker at the clock tower in front of Science Hall on Feb. 18.
“I came out of class and there were male teenagers with the speaker recording people’s reactions to the speech,” Tischio said. “I told the speaker that he didn’t have our consent to record us, and he said that women are illogical.”
Among other comments, Tischio said the speaker told her and her friends that Hell’s “flames are getting hotter for us.”
By the next day, a petition in collaboration with the Progressive Student Alliance and various students had begun to circulate around campus. Tischio said that the petition states “In lieu of the recent hate speech from non-student organizations on campus, students and faculty unite to support a reform of the free speech policy for students and non-students alike on Rowan’s campus.” As of Feb. 25, it has 317 signatures.
“We have no issue with people exercising their practiced religion on campus,” Tischio said. “We have a problem with them attacking students, telling them that they’re going to Hell. We’re not trying to limit the freedom of speech, but expand it while banning hate speech on campus.”
The group also held a public protest at the same clock tower on Feb. 27, promoting their petition while looking to draw more signatures.
PSA president and junior applied sociology major Jenna Siegel said there was discrepancy between students at the protest and those looking to get involved with it.
“A lot of people thought we were trying to get rid of free speech,” Siegel said. “We just want students to feel safe and be heard.”
However, vice president of University Relations Joe Cardona said it is that discrepancy and personal definition of hate speech that draws concern to the petitioning group.
“You really have to be careful about the definition of hate speech, because if it’s people expressing religious views, they have a right to be expressing those views,” Cardona said. “The university does not put up with hate speech as defined and I know that [the protesting students] have talked to Dean [of Student Life Richard] Jones, but they did not file it completely as hate speech.”
Cardona said that the president’s office has not been contacted by the student group, and that the Office of Equity and Diversity is the one that would investigate a case of hate speech or discrimination.
“They would take action against that immediately, and they wouldn’t take it lightly,” Cardona said.
Assistant vice president of Equity and Diversity Johanna Velez-Yelin agreed that a defining instance of hate speech must be more clear for Rowan to take action.
“People have a right to speak,” Velez-Yelin said. “I don’t agree with anything this [speaker] said, but this is about the right to speak versus ‘I don’t like what I hear.'”
Velez-Yelin said that hate speech occurs in public speaking, not a conversation such as the one Tischio had with the speaker. She also added that the speaker’s free speech is protected as long as he doesn’t “incite violence or disrupt the flow of business on campus.”
“Free speech ends when what you’re doing gets in the way of what you’re saying,” Velez-Yelin said. “We have to be careful with opening the door for censoring speech.”
However, Siegel said that Rowan has contradicted itself before with policies on censorship. Siegel said she was part of a group protesting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s visit to campus in the Fall 2013 semester and that an administration officer escorted the group to “a designated area away from the media.”
Rowan’s student handbook states that in the case of spontaneous protest, “the university expects the students, faculty and/or staff involved to engage in responsible and peaceful assembly and reserves the right for an appropriate university official, such as the assistant vice president for Campus Recreation & Student Activities or a public safety officer, to ask demonstrators to relocate the assembly if it proves disruptive at that particular location.”
Tischio said that there are no solidified plans to move the petition forward at this time, but the group has reached out to Residential Learning and University Housing Director of Student Housing Travis Douglas. However, Douglas said that he has not had any conversation with the group as of Feb. 26.
Tischio also said that the group may be interested in seeking the Student Government Association’s backing in the future. For now, Velez-Yelin said she’d like the chance to sit down with the group and explain both parties’ rights.
“They have a right to protest and speak an opposite message to this man, and the best way to counter what this man believes in is to turn it into a positive message that neutralizes his,” Velez-Yelin said.
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