As plaza preachers call students whores, questions on freedom of speech arise

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Brother Jed sits in front of a crowd of onlookers as he waits for questions about his ministry. Jed and two other members of his Campus Ministry USA visited campus, engaging in confrontational preaching with students passing by in Bosco Plaza. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

It’s a cool, wet Thursday afternoon during the first week of the semester, and Jed Smock, 75, is an oddball amid the stream of students in K-State’s Bosco Plaza.

Looking right out of a barbershop quartet with in a neat blue blazer, bowtie and boater hat, Smock — infamous across the country as Brother Jed — carries a stool with him, sits it and himself down squarely in the center of the plaza, and proceeds to call the students whores.

Smock and his wife, “Sister” Cindy Smock, are no strangers to college campuses. Together, they head Campus Ministry USA, an evangelical organization based out of Indiana that targets campuses across the nation, but particularly in the Midwest.

“We just come out here and start speaking out against sins. Especially the sexual issues, and the drunkenness, and the extensive use of mind-altering drugs — the sins that are prevalent on college campuses.” Mr. Smock said.

Smock and his wife said they don’t shy away from taking a confrontational approach toward their work, although they said they’ve never initiated any violent confrontation. Last August, Mrs. Smock suffered a broken ankle after she said she was assaulted by a student when the couple was preaching at Illinois State University.

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Using his hands and body to help explain his ministry, Brother Jed answers a question from one of the onlookers in Bosco Plaza. Today, August 23, 2018, Jeb and two other members of his minisitry visited campus to speak of their beliefs and answer questions that the crowd had. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

“We are confrontational, we do expect a reaction,” Mr. Smock said.

In recent years, public universities across the country have grappled with how to handle the confrontations and outrage that result when incendiary speech —protected under freedom of speech laws — ignite tensions on campus.

At campuses nationally, students have protested and succeeded in keeping controversial speakers from coming to their campuses, including University of California, Berkeley, where students caused $100,000 worth of damage during riots over alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned speech at the school in January. University administrators canceled the event just two hours before he was set to speak, out of concern for the public’s safety.

In July, the University of Kansas removed a flag art exhibit from a flagpole outside a campus building after it received intense condemnation from government officials, including Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer, then the two candidates in the Republican primary governor ballot.

“While we want to foster difficult dialogue, we cannot allow that dialogue to put our people or property in harm’s way,” KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said at the time.

At K-State, the university has come under fire for upholding freedom of speech ideals, even when such speech conflicts with the university’s stated Principles of Community.

‘We are confrontational, we do expect a reaction.’
-Jed Smock

Last September, white nationalist posters appeared overnight on campus in what would turn into a series of similar events that pushed the boundaries of free speech, including a KKK reference on social media and an obscene chant at sporting events.

In those cases, the university took action or issued statements to handle the ensuing outrage, but stopped short of taking any formal disciplinary action against students or groups.

The year prior to those events, the K-State general counsel sent out a newsletter outlining the role of freedom of speech on college campuses. The newsletter read:

“The courts point out that offensive speech and unpopular viewpoints are what need legal protection the most, because that is the type of expression people are most likely to ask the government to shut down or that the government itself might want to shut down. Free speech protections are in place under the law for good reason.”

Pat Bosco, dean of students, said events like these are “troubling” but a great chance for the university to educate students.

“We’ve got to be stronger than just words,” Bosco said. “We have a chance to educate, that’s the whole idea of the First Amendment, for us to be able to have this kind of dialogue.”

Sparking tension

While the Smocks and Myrna Bennett, a member of their ministry, said they never outright target any particular students who walk by, they do issue broad condemnations of students who have sex before marriage, calling that “whoredom.”

“It’s biblical terminology,”Mr. Smock said “If you’re having sex outside of marriage, you’re a whore.”

“We don’t point people out and call them names, but we do point out the sin on campus, and we say — there’s fornicators, there’s potheads, there’s porn freaks. We call out these sins, but we don’t personally call out anyone,” Mrs. Smock said.

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Myrna Bennett, a preacher with Campus Ministry USA, argues against Jamison Bourgeois, freshman in open option. Bennett joined Campus Ministry USA leaders Jed and Cindy Smock in preaching what they called their confrontational ministry, calling students whores and potheads, among other insults.

Vern Wirka, professor of journalism and mass communications, said the trio’s expression is protected under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Snyder v. Phelps.

Wirka said since K-State is a public university, the regulation of the content in any message is strictly prohibited. In the absence of vehement personal attacks, expression such as Campus Ministry USA’s is protected. Bosco had the same understanding of the law.

“[Mr. Smock] knows the principles of the constitution; this is not his first rodeo,” Bosco said. “Sometimes he goes up to the line without crossing. It’s what the First Amendment is all about, and that’s the freedom of speech.”

Mr. Smock said he doesn’t consider his preaching or insults to be fighting words.

“No, they’re truth,” Mr. Smock said. “I mean, if I come up and call some guy’s wife a whore, I suppose those could be fighting words, but if you’re married, you’re not committing whoredom if you’re having sex. It’s just sex outside of marriage.”

Mr. Smock has been a campus mainstay since he first started preaching in 1972. He said K-State is a regular stop on his itinerary, and he tries to come to campus annually or at least every couple of years — often enough that students occasionally recognize him. He says K-State officials have never really put any restrictions on how he’s gone about his preaching, except for one minor incident in the early 1980s.

In that incident, he said he was stopped by a campus policeman. Mr. Smock complained to the dean of students, who informed both Smock and the policeman that Smock was protected under freedom of speech laws.

“He introduced me to the police chief at the time, and we haven’t had any issues since,” Mr. Smock said.

“I think there’s a lot more Christians here than at the University of Kansas. We like to come to this campus,” Mrs. Smock said.

A public forum

On the first day of the Smocks’ stop at K-State, a crowd of students grew, shrunk and shifted in closer to Smock as the day progressed. Some students would occasionally confront the preacher, while others sat back on the steps of the plaza to watch the “entertainment.”

The Smocks and Bennett cycled turns in front of the audience, and students in the audience likewise took turns engaging with the preachers.

Jamison Bourgeois, freshman in open option, stood feet away from the center of the circle, confessing his sins. He said he appreciates the dissent and the debate in such a public space as Bosco Plaza. In fact, Bourgeois said he wishes more public debates of the sort could come to pass.

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Sister Myrna Bennett speaks of her church's ministry at the Kansas State University Bosco Plaza while a group onlooks from the steps. Bennett and a few other members of her ministry visited campus to speak of thier beliefs on Thursday, August 23, 2018. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

“People learn from this,” Bourgeois said, before returning to the debate.

Bosco said rather than hurting the university’s reputation, policies respecting free speech only strengthen the university, and it gives students the chance to think critically.

“I think there is awkwardness and uncomfortableness in exchanging ideas that are different,” Bosco said. “We are so wrapped up in language these days, it’s extremely difficult to have a dialogue without offending somebody.”

Whether it be for entertainment, honest conversation or some divine inspiration, Mrs. Smock said wherever they go, the crowd follows.

“It’s the anointing of the Holy Ghost,” Mrs. Smock said. “We’re full of the Holy Spirit. We don’t force anyone to stop, but the Holy Spirit draws them to hear the word.”

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Mr. Smock’s first name in the cutlines of photos featuring Mr. Smock. The misspelling has been amended. The Collegian regrets the error.

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Rafael Garcia
I'm Rafael Garcia, and I'm a senior in journalism and news editor for the K-State Collegian. I believe that much of the world's problems come from a lack of understanding of other people, but by telling other people's stories and finding the good in the world, I think we can increase our understanding and appreciation of each other. Questions, comments, concerns, news tips? Email me at rgarcia@kstatecollegian.com.