Online exclusive: Tolerance of hate speech

Portland’s Southwest Park Avenue is often the site of Portland’s notorious varieties of street preachers.

Portland’s Southwest Park Avenue is often the site of Portland’s notorious varieties of street preachers.  Nine of the park blocks also happen to fall within Portland State’s campus. This overlap makes the Park Blocks a very desirable locale for many canvassers, protests and unfortunately, fundamentalist street preachers.

There are many reasons to be annoyed over street preachers, and this is directed at no specific type of street preacher, be it Orthodox Jewish or Evangelical Christian. For one thing, street preachers make non- falsifiable claims, and for another, they do it a tone of voice that cannot be ignored, even if you want to. If ever there was a case of “disturbing the peace,” my vote would be on them for spot number one.

Let us put those reasons aside for a moment and focus on some claims that can be made against certain street preachers that use their public speaking tactics to violate other people’s civil liberties.

The issue of religiously motivated hate speech on Portland State’s campus came to my attention when one day, while walking from one end of the Park Blocks to the other, I heard an especially irate open-air preacher screaming at a young woman that she was a “whore” and a “harlot,” amongst other derogatory terms. What was even more alarming was that aside from her, no one else came to this woman’s defense. In a classic display of passive-aggressive Portland cool, this woman was a victim of hate speech, while this jerk got to use his “rights” to openly be a woman-hating patriarch.

This was not an isolated incident. In over two years at PSU, I have continually been confronted with the reality that there are preachers on campus whose messages are far from holy.  

Mike Coatney, a senior at PSU majoring in geology, has witnessed his fair share of harassment at the mouth of street preachers. “I’ve seen them go after anyone they can to get a rise out of people, but particularly people they perceived to be Muslim or LGBTQ -identified,” Coatney said. “There really isn’t anything that can be done in the legal sense, but people should feel obligated to stand up for people who are being harassed over their identity.” 

PSU does not currently have any speech codes—codes that are used to put limitations on free speech while in an educational environment—while Oregon State University and University of Oregon do have them. While speech codes have not been especially successful at prosecuting anyone for violating them, they do help to set a standard and they do define a university’s position on tolerating hate speech.

So, while we all are just going to have to accept that the First Amendment is going to keep the Park Blocks’ street preachers with us for a long time to come, it is important to think of how we can creatively combat them, and use our First Amendment rights to create social norms that are intolerant of hate speech crimes.

Religion been put on a pedestal for too long, and what is being equated with a person’s belief system is actually representative of their personal political agenda. This agenda is often one that is completely oppositional to what education attempts to create. More equality for women, queer- and trans-identified people, and even for people of another belief system would all go out the window if the street preachers were to get their way. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it is not a love of God that drives these fundamentalists, but rather a desire to provoke a violent reaction from someone and the desire to use violent speech to hurt someone else. 

It is dishonest to say that freedom of speech gives people the right to say whatever they want, regardless of consequence. We accept that there will be consequences to what we say, so it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that if more people stood up against hate speech that social norms could be established that make it undesirable to be a bigot in public.

When laws don’t provide clear definitions around their limitations, it is up to everyone to push society in the desirable direction. Which is more desirable: tolerance for hate speech, or the freedom to receive an education without having to worry about being the target for someone using religion as a scapegoat for their hate-filled agenda?