It was just Pride Month here at Salem State, but you wouldn’t know it.

Almost every Wednesday for the past month, students, including myself, have been tormented by a “preacher” casting hate speech at us as we walk to class.

He usually sets up in the center of North Campus, where most classes are held, though sometimes he takes to yelling at the food truck line. The signs he brandishes often read mantras like “Homosexuality Is A Sin” or “Abortion Is Murder” in a similar style to the famed Westboro Baptist Church. Normally he is by himself, but sometimes one or two of his friends will tag along.

On a recent Thursday, he came with nine others.

The campus police set up a perimeter of cones for the speakers to occupy, closing off a portion of the North Campus quad right at the entrance to the Berry Library. The officers then stationed themselves around the cones, guarding the speakers as students began to form a group protest. Quickly, the scene turned into a sort of riot. Students went hoarse shouting at the speakers to leave, while bearded men railed back at them, thundering verses from the Bible from atop benches. Professors and staff held signs in solidarity, and tables were promptly set up by student activists to support students in need. I could hear the chaos roaring outside while in class on the third floor of Meier Hall.

It was jarring to stand on the campus I’ve called home for four years and have a group of men tell me my existence is wrong, that I am going to burn. It hurts. It’s incredibly painful and profoundly sad.

The university administration’s response to this ongoing situation has not only been poor, but also deeply troubling to many students, including myself. More than two weeks ago, President John Keenan sent out a mass email about who he dubbed the “Uninvited Visitor.” The email offered condolences and expressed empathy for impacted students. Ninety percent of President Keenan’s email, however, was about free speech. He spent 750 words lecturing his audience about the legality of hate speech and how it was his sworn duty to protect such speech, regardless of how it inflicts pain on his students. Keenan made sure to assure us he was on our side though, describing the various achievements for the LGBTQ+ community he accomplished in his tenure as a legislator. The whole message came across like he was shrugging his shoulders, shaking his fist at the sky, just wishing he could help us because wouldn’t you know it he just can’t stand it when students are discriminated against. The paltry solution he offered us at the end of the email was a series of small discussions about free speech, hosted by administration staff and himself. He made sure to include the phone number for Counseling and Health Services, too.

Following President Keenan’s email, Board of Trustees Chairman Rob Lutts decided to chime in on the situation as well. His position was much the same as the president’s — he concurred that free speech was the most important factor in the situation and that student suffering was simply an unfortunate byproduct of protecting the First Amendment. Lutts assured students that if we hang in there the “truth will prevail.”

The solution Chairman Lutts suggested was that we should just simply ignore the problem. He claimed that if we ignore the man’s screams he would “just give up and go away.” I find this solution ridiculous, and I now question if Chairman Lutts or any members of the board have ever even stepped foot on campus. From where the speaker is set up — at the center of Alumni Plaza directly outside the Ellison Student Center — you can not only hear him from the quad, but from outside the library, in front of the classroom buildings Meier and Sullivan, the freshman dorm Bowditch, the administration building, and the building where students receive COVID-19 tests. Maybe Chairman Lutts is able to ignore the speaker from wherever he lives, insulated from our campus, but we certainly cannot. Maybe President Keenan can ignore the speaker from his off-campus office, but we certainly cannot.

Lutts then delivered a message that many faculty, staff, and students, including myself, found deeply disturbing and infuriating. As a tactic to ignore and avoid the “Uninvited Visitor,” Lutts suggested that students should use the back door to the Ellison Student Center. I can almost not describe how insulting and hurtful this suggestion is. For a member of university leadership to tell me that I should hide myself, smuggle myself through the back door of a building that’s meant for me to use, all because of my identity, it hurts. It shows me my school deems students like me not worthy of protection, that students like me aren’t valued or respected. How dare you tell us to use the back door, how dare you condemn LGBTQ+ students to hide in shame and shadows.

This is my message to Chairman Lutts, President Keenan, and all university leadership:

Remove the hate speakers from our campus, do your duty to protect your students. If they take you to court, then fight for us. Show us that Pride Month was truly to celebrate LGBTQ+ students and wasn’t just a weak PR stunt.

Neither myself, nor any other SSU students deserve to use the back door.

Not now, not ever.

Joey Wolongevicz is a gay Salem State University senior student who lives and works on campus.

Trending Video

Recommended for you