Freedom of Sidewalk Speech

By Annie Knox

Before 11 a.m. on April 2, about a dozen members of Pride Union, Syracuse University’s union for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender undergraduates and their allies, waited on the corner in 87-degree heat. A car honked. Was it him? John Crandall, president of Pride Union and a senior anthropology major, squinted in the sunlight. No. False alarm. Nick Haas, a sophomore forestry engineering major at SUNY-ESF, tied two corners of a human-sized rainbow flag around the senior’s neck. Later, Amelia Bienstock, a junior magazine journalism major, wrapped it around her body and fastened a belt over it. “I think y’all scared him away,” Crandall said. “He saw the flag and it was just too much.”

“He” is Jim Deferio, an evangelist from Syracuse who says he has traveled to more than 50 college campuses protesting against homosexuality. Deferio, who protested on the corner the day before, told Pride Union members that he would be back the next day at 11 a.m.

It’s become a familiar sight at SU: Deferio shows up with a sign bemoaning gays, and advocates for gay rights come to counter-protest.

Just the way the First Amendment is supposed to work. Because as heinous as some believe Deferio’s signs and slogans are, constitutional experts say there’s little the university can—or should—do about it.

According to David Rubin, former dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and an expert on First Amendment law, unless Deferio’s protests become violent, which they never have, police are unlikely to get involved. If the protests were to leave traffic blocked or cause class disruption, Rubin said, police could require Deferio to change the time, place, or manner (in this case, volume) of his speech. The city of Ithaca tried just that in 2008—but failed.

Deferio sued the city of Ithaca after two police officers told him and another evangelist, Kevin Deegan, that they needed to lower their voices while preaching in a downtown area. They were violating Ithaca’s ban of noise that reaches more than 25 feet from its source. Two years earlier, an appellate court had deemed the 25-foot noise ban in violation of the First and the 14th amendments and had granted Deegan a judgment against Ithaca officials. Deferio sued the city. The city settled with him for $18,000 last February, according to the Ithaca Journal.

Joel Kaplan, an expert on First Amendment law and a professor of reporting at the Newhouse School, said that Deferio’s speech could be considered “hate speech,” because it offends a group based on sexual orientation. But hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. If someone inferred Deferio’s protests to be “fighting words”—speech directed  toward an individual that would likely cause violence to erupt—he could make a claim in court against Deferio, Kaplan said.

Just before 11, a tour group hovering outside of Schine faced toward the crosswalk. “I love it,” said A.J. Ellis, a senior business major. “They’ll think Syracuse is always this nice and always this gay.”

A few minutes after 11:00, and no sign of Deferio. Some Pride Union members got out markers and poster boards anyway. Others milled around the same spot where junior Chris Pesto counter-protested next to Jim Deferio’s daughter, Michelle Deferio, in November. She had held a sign that said “Homosexuality is sin. Jesus can save you.” So Pesto made a sign saying “Corduroy skirts are a sin,” in reference to the skirt she was wearing. They stood sign-by-sign from daylight until after dark, when, The Post Standard estimated, 70 students joined Pesto. ABC, MSNBC, and Perez Hilton covered the counter-protest, which circulated around numerous blogs. The Facebook group “Corduroy skirts are a sin” now has almost 4,000 members, including people outside the university community.

Crandall, a Syracuse native, said that Jim Deferio protests on the corner up to two or three times per week, usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays and also during lacrosse and basketball games. He holds signs that tout the thousands of ex-homosexuals who have found the love of Jesus, and lists websites for therapy from homosexuality. He has also held signs protesting abortion and Islam. Crandall said that speech against homosexuality is “dangerous, it’s ineffective, and it results in wonderful people killing themselves.”

After Deferio told Pride Union he would be back on Friday, Crandall sent an email to SU and SUNY-ESF students urging them to peacefully protest with Pride Union to prove that the university is “no place for hate,” echoing the SU Office of Residence Life’s campaign by the same name. The “No place for hate” campaign aims to make students aware of discrimination and bias on campus and to spark dialogue between students with different cultures, races, genders, and sexual orientations, according to a document posted on the office’s website. Crandall said that the point of the sweltering day’s protest was to show students who feel targeted or shaken by the Deferios’ speech that they are safe and supported by the university community. Students shouldn’t have to feel targeted or unsafe on their way to class, even though Waverly Avenue’s sidewalk is not part of campus, Crandall said.

“I think the response from the SU community, and not just the queer community, is that there is another message out there, that you can be part of our community, that you’re beautiful, and that you are not simple,” he said.

No Deferio yet. Posters covered the steps leading up the pathway to the campus. “Isn’t heaven over the rainbow?” one said. “I respect your opinion. Now respect mine,” another said. “We’re going to hold our own pro-diversity ‘no place for hate’ rally whether or not he’s here to speak hate,” Crandall said.

Maybe Deferio was sleeping in, someone said. A dozen Pride Union members had taken their signs to the curb, including ones that said “Honk for Equality” and “Honk for Love.” Car horns blared all at once. One woman reached over from the passenger’s seat to honk the horn for her companions. Terrance Smith, a junior communications and rhetorical studies major, recorded the protest. He said he has seen Jim Deferio on this corner since his freshman year.

“Normally I just give him the cold shoulder. I don’t pay much attention, because that’s what he wants,” Smith said. The day after Pesto’s counter-protest in November, a user named “Jim Deferio” commented on The Post-Standard’s coverage of the event on syracuse.com. He had been to SUNY Geneseo and SUNY Buffalo the same week.

“On those campuses I’m allowed to be on the center of campus and often the students do engage me in debate—unlike the party animals at SU,” the user said.

“I have been banned from the campus and have been threatened with arrest if I even take one step onto the campus,” the same user posted three months later.

Why do SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Geneseo allow Deferio to protest on their property, while SU does not? Because SU is a private university. Free speech rights on private property—like the SU campus—can be much more easily restricted than at public institutions, like the SUNY campuses.

Deferio says he picked the intersection of Waverly and University avenues because, despite the fact that it’s surrounded by SU buildings and well-trafficked by SU students, it’s technically public property.

Chief of Public Safety Anthony Callisto said that DPS does not have any record of having banned the Deferios from SU property, but that they have been warned to not to demonstrate on university property.

Under policy of the Student Centers and Programming Services, part of the Division of Student Affairs, only recognized student groups and student associations can protest on university property, Callisto said. People who are not university affiliates can be removed from the campus by DPS at any time.

Before Callisto arrived at SU four years ago, the university had a speech code in place that bans any activity that would harass a student or a teacher in spaces owned or controlled by the university.

Professor Rubin rejected the idea that universities should develop their own speech codes. “Universities can’t and shouldn’t really establish rules about speech — any sort of speech or press — that are different from the rules in general society,” he said. University speech codes “make no sense in part because a university is dedicated to an open exchange of information and because most people within a university community are meant to be intelligent, understand their rights, and know what it means to live in a free society,” he said.

Jeff Cappella, a graduate student in the Maxwell School, walked up to Lauren Hannahs, a graduate assistant at the LGBT Resource Center. Cappella said that Pride Union’s e-mail suggested that the Deferios should not be allowed to voice their opinions on the corner. It doesn’t make sense, he said, that Pride Union should protest but say that the Deferios shouldn’t. But Hannahs thinks the students should be allowed to protest. “This is just these students showing their support and expressing how they feel, in a safe space. This wasn’t an attempt to limit anyone’s free speech,” she said. “The attempt was to have a dialogue and show two sides of the story.” Crandall also spoke to Cappella. Afterward, he told Cappella to have a nice day. “I think on every level here at Syracuse, there’s a willingness to engage in a dialogue even if there’s disagreement,” he said. Maybe, he thought aloud, the Deferios’ absence showed that they weren’t open to a conversation with Pride Union.

“Beep, beep!” said a few people who crossed the road on foot and bikes. One man pressed an invisible horn as he jogged across the crosswalk. “You’re GAY!” a man shouted out the car window as he sped past. “Yeah!” Pride Union cheered.

Freshman biology major Matt Koslow crossed the protest on his way to play practice. He unpacked his guitar, sat on the pathway steps, and started to play “And Justice For All” by Metallica. “If I knew the rest of this song,” he said before heading to rehearsal, “It’d be perfect.”

Crandall stood on the ledge above the sidewalk holding onto the giant flag waving in the wind, before hopping down and heading to work. “Our response to him, as a student organization, was whenever you’re going to come to our campus with a message of hate, we’re going to make sure there’s a message of love and positivity and openness and community,” he said.

Rae Rozman, a junior psychology major, laid down her poster to pose for a photographer from The Daily Orange.

“It wasn’t what we intended for it to be,” she said, honks almost drowning her out. “It turned into messages of love and affirmation, which is good. We’re making people smile.”

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One thought on “Freedom of Sidewalk Speech”

  1. I just saw this. This is fairly well done but it does contain some errors.

    I never said that I had been to “more than 50 college campuses protesting homosexuality”, NEVER. I did say that I have been to 54 college campuses. and many of them multiple times, ministering. Give me a break, I usually try to spend 5-6 hours on a campus and it only takes a short time to refute “gay theology” and the supposed research that shows a biological/genetic link to homosexuality (I know what the research DOES show).

    Also, Joel Kaplan is absolutely laughable. I think his own hatreds and biases are getting in the way of sound advice and scholarship. Just try it Joel !

    Also, I didn’t say for certain that I would be at my usual place on that day. The Pride Union made fools of themselves, because “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”. (Proverbs 16:18).

    In addition, students have lied to the police about me, they have called me every filthy name that any pervert could ever think of, they have thrown objects at me, I have had coffee thrown at me, and I have been pushed and my sign kicked. Also, my daughter Michelle was pelted with hard stinging objects one day. Oh, and all of this BESIDES being threatened with arrest by the SU Security and Syracuse Police.

    I’m so sick of the intolerance of the so-called tolerant crowd. One of your mantras is “diversity” but when one brings a truly different message to the public square then you Christophobic God-hating bigots try to silence it.

    I’ll be seeking more legal advice as to how to come right into the middle of the campus, then what? You can’t kick me off of that sidewalk near the steps, that’s for sure. The next step is the quad…

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