Actually, It’s All Right To Argue With Street Preachers

When I was a college student many years ago, we could look forward to an annual spring ritual: an itinerant evangelical preacher would appear on campus, set up base in an open area near the library and cut loose with some hellfire sermons.

His name was Jed Smock, and he often singled out women whose attire he didn’t care for. Smock could be annoying, but the area he spoke in was a typical campus green. It was often used for demonstrations, activity fairs, remarks by campus politicians and other free-speech activities. As a senior, I edited the school newspaper, and I remember writing an editorial supporting Smock’s right to speak on campus – although I was far from convinced he was worth listening to.

Smock and other wandering evangelists are still canvassing America’s colleges. (My daughter encountered Smock at the University of Missouri a few years ago.)

Recently, one of them, a man named Tom Short, surfaced at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Like a lot of these characters, Short has a real problem with evolution and devoted much of his time to attacking it. Some students decided to argue with him, and a mini-debate ensued.

A student named Jacob Notermann had a strange reaction to all of this. He seems to believe that the students who questioned Short were somehow violating his freedom of speech and religious freedom rights!

“My point is that those who attacked Tom had no right to,” Notermann wrote. “They disrespected not only freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but they also disrespected someone who is praying for them. If a student argues with him regarding his beliefs, they are only fueling Tom’s fire and proving his point. They guy just wants to help you, don’t grill him over it.”

Engage or ignore? It's your call.

I’ve encountered this line of thinking before in Religious Right publications. The belief seems to be that if someone presents spirited opposition to your point of view, that person doesn’t respect your right to speak.

It’s an illogical argument. Unless the campus police dragged Short away (they didn’t), he had the right to speak. But some of the students thought he was wrong and challenged him to defend his views, which, I assume, he did.

Notermann complained that students asked Short questions like, “If God exists, why is there suffering in the world?” and “Can God cure cancer?” He writes, quite condescendingly, in my view, “While I watched and listened, all I could do was smile at the amount of pretentiousness and bullying happening around me.”

So it’s pretentious and a form of bullying to ask a man who is preaching in public to defend his point of view?

To me, it sounds like this was an exchange of ideas. It was perhaps heated at times, but it in no way infringed on Short’s religious freedom. What unfolded on the UND campus that day sounds like a pretty healthy development for a college.

Religious speech is like other forms of speech, and it should receive the same level of protection against government censorship and a heckler’s veto. But religious speech is not somehow special or better than other forms of speech simply because it is religious. It is not above criticism or even a blistering counter-argument.

People who step into the public sphere, as this evangelist chose to do, should expect some verbal pushback. They should expect that a listener may disagree and will use his or her right to free speech to say that.

The Constitution guarantees to all of us the right to speak on religious or non-religious topics. It doesn’t guarantee us the right to a docile audience, and it certainly doesn’t put religious speech on such a lofty plane that it is above all criticism.