Traveling preacher creates campus controversy

Charley Bruce

University students know him as Brother Jed, the traveling preacher who always seems to cause a stir on campus.

His real name is George Edward Smock and his most recent visits to campus ended with students and Smock facing off.

Last week, University police escorted him from campus. Smock said he thought it was for his own safety; police later wouldn’t say why Smock was taken to his car.

While most instances of Smock’s public preaching occur without police action, his recent removal from campus showcases a difficult balance between free speech and public safety on campus.

“Brother Jed”

Smock is part of Campus Ministry U.S.A., based in Columbia, Mo. The organization’s goal, according to Smock, is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ across U.S. college and university campuses.

Private donations fund his full-time preaching, through which he said he has traveled to college campuses in every state and abroad for 33 years.

Smock identified his backers as “Christians from different churches who, over the years, have become acquainted with what I do.”

He said he chooses to preach at universities because there is such a diverse spectrum of the world’s population. Students are the next generation of politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and journalists, Smock said.

“I have been coming to this campus virtually annually for 30 years,” Smock said. “(There is) a group of people that encourage me to get up here.”

Smock uses a style of preaching he calls confrontational evangelism to try to convince college students there is a better way to live their lives.

“To be aggressive is effective,” Smock said.

Smock said his approach is not embraced by all. Some evangelical groups believe he preaches too strongly and doesn’t love enough, he said.

The incident

On Monday, the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, Smock was preaching on campus.

Smock said he made numerous anti-Islamic remarks that day.

“I am against the Muslim religion,” Smock said. “I believe it’s violent.”

Smock said he had a Bible in one hand and a Quran in the other.

Matt Marcou, an electrical engineering first-year, said he had just left a chemistry lecture and came across Smock, who was “calling (the Muslim) god a false god.”

Marcou said a woman attempted to grab the Quran from Smock’s hand, but Smock resisted.

The woman was so distressed “she actually started throwing punches and kicks,” Marcou said.

Smock said the woman hit and kicked him, broke his glasses, and tried to strangle him with his own necktie.

University police arrive

Smock said University police arrived and spoke to him and the woman.

“The police threatened if I didn’t stop (preaching) to arrest us both for disorderly conduct,” he said.

The police left, but would soon return.

A few dozen people had gathered around Smock, and when police showed up the second time, officers approached him. After speaking to him, the officers brought him to the rear of the squad car and searched him against the trunk.

Police then placed him in the back seat and drove away. Smock said police drove him to where he had parked his car.

“I believe I was treated basically unjustly,” he said.

University Police Chief Greg Hestness said police “just shut down their operation for the day.”

“I don’t think (Smock’s speech) was directed at any one person; rather, (it was) general discourse,” he said.

Hestness said Smock left voluntarily, but Smock said he wanted to stay and preach.

“They decided that perhaps they didn’t want to come out and guard me, which I think they should have done,” Smock said. “They just decided the easiest thing to do was to escort me in the squad car back to my car.”

Police did not charge anyone, including Smock, with a crime, Hestness said.

Restricted speech

Heidi Kitrosser, a University law professor who specializes in constitutional and free speech law, said there is a category of speech called “fighting words”: speech so inflammatory it encourages others to fight.

This speech is not protected by the First Amendment, as it is seen as a breach of the peace, she said.

Kitrosser said the First Amendment has been interpreted to guard against the government restricting view-based speech.

“That’s clearly prohibited,” she said.

The Supreme Court of the United States has been sensitive to not restricting offensive speech, or allowing a “heckler’s veto.” It is not generally an acceptable reason to restrict speech, she said.

“If he’s saying, ‘I hate these groups, or I think these groups shouldn’t be allowed to live,’ as offensive as it is, that’s generally allowed,” she said.

The Court’s most definitive ruling regarding incitement to violence is Brandenburg v. Ohio, which makes illegal intentional speech likely to cause imminent and unlawful action, Kitrosser said.

” ‘Hey, everybody go get a gun and kill that guy,’ ” was a good example of such speech, she said.

The government (or a public university, an entity of the state) sometimes has more leeway in restricting speech, Kitrosser said.

Speech often can be regulated based on where the speech is taking place, such as if crowds build up in certain areas, or there may be rules about speakers touching spectators.

But without all the details, Kitrosser said she could not say whether the University was justified in removing Smock from campus.

Countering speech

Naomi Scheman, a philosophy and gender, women’s and sexuality studies professor, on Monday saw Smock saying the Bible is a good book and the Quran is an evil book.

She said she thought of Muslim students, who may be new to the country, and realized the date could be difficult for them.

She said these students may not know about the University’s doctrine of allowing free speech whatever position the speech takes, Scheman said.

“Bigoted speech needs to be countered with good speech,” Scheman said.