A voice boomed “ABORTION IS MURDER” while I attempted to finish some homework outside of Jester East Residence Hall. A large red and white sign caught my attention as the voice commanded me to raise my hands to the heavens.
With COVID-19 building restrictions, students can really only safely do homework or attend online class in the library, their room or outside. You can imagine my frustration to learn that every Friday, from noon to 5 p.m., the places I could attend online class were reduced to two spaces due to Ryan Denton, a preacher from the Christ in the Wild ministry, and his disruptive sermons.
“It’s just a matter of going where the lost are for me,” Denton said. “UT-Austin is a good place to talk about Christ in that kind of context.”
However, sometimes the “lost” don’t want to be found. UT should limit the amount of time outside speakers can use outdoor spaces on campus. Limiting access to outdoor forum spaces will prevent campus disruptions as outdoor spaces are one of the only places students can make use of during COVID-19.
Denton’s divisive signs are a loud reminder of the freedoms found in Senate Bill 18, which states that public colleges can be used as public forums for citizens to express their opinions and beliefs in an educational space as long as you’re not disrupting the campus learning environment.
“Freedom of speech is incredibly important to all universities and to the University of Texas at Austin,” University spokesperson J.B. Bird said. “It is a pillar of academic freedom, and it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.”
Denton takes this freedom very seriously.
“What I'm doing and speaking about are things that are very educational and important,” Denton said. “Certain truths that you're not going to hear about in class.”
However, the University has the right to restrict the time, place and manner of speech on University grounds to prevent disruption of the campus environment.
During an almost exclusively virtual semester, all of campus is a learning environment for students.
Radio-television-film freshman Kelso Meeks doesn’t have a problem with free speech, but he views Denton’s presence on campus as a distraction and a disturbance to student life and learning.
“People should be able to talk, but it's different when he's screaming at people,” Meeks said. “He's just yelling in public that Black lives don't matter because Black women are allowed to get abortions, and he only happens to yell that when Black women walked past him. I don't think he should be allowed to be there.”
Messages like the one above are not only distracting, but also demeaning. I personally was distracted by his ongoing message of salvation, something I didn’t really care to hear about in the middle of completing Canvas assignments.
In accordance with SBl 18, the University can and should limit the hours Denton and others can use public spaces.
Doctors have agreed that if you’re with a larger gathering of people, such as a study group or some lunch friends, you should stay outside to limit the risk of COVID-19. It’s hard to do that when someone is screaming on Speedway for five hours.
“The primary business of our campus is to come and get an education,” Bird said.
Therefore, students should feel free to study wherever they please without disruption, regardless of their religious salvation.
During these medically pressing times, the University should expand on SB 18 so students can feel comfortable while trying to follow CDC regulations.
Gomez is a journalism freshman from Lewisville, Texas.