It was a typical morning at San Francisco State University when Ken Ferrer and two fellow Christian activists arrived on campus to stage their demonstration.
The trio set up in highly-trafficked area of campus, armed with signs that read: "WARNING, fake Christians, homosexuals, abortionists, party animals, rebellious women, liars, Muslims, masturbators, murderers, liberals, crossdressers, Buddhists HELL AWAITS."
Before long, their provocative display drew a crowd of angry students. Then, violence broke out.
It's unclear which side struck first, but the assembly quickly turned from a tense religious demonstration into a chaotic brawl. Ken Ferrer found himself doused in coffee as he and his fellow activists fought to stay afoot. Meanwhile, furious students tried to tear their signs away.
University police were called in to de-escalate the situation, and the activists were escorted off campus for safety reasons.
While no serious injuries occurred, critics say it's the latest example of a growing intolerance toward religious beliefs particularly on college campuses.
The Hate Speech Debate
This event, and others like it, highlight ongoing issues regarding the right to free speech, especially as it pertains to religious expression. In theory, freedom of speech covers everything aside from direct threats or yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.
But in practice, unrestrained free speech has proven a hot-button issue especially on college campuses. Over the past few years, colleges have become ground zero for debates over what constitutes free speech.
Controversial speakers draw the ire of students, who accuse them of using hate speech and protest their very presence on campus. Increasingly, this "hate speech" label is being used to fight back against contentious ideas, and, in some cases, is even be used to justify violence against those who spread them. There are those who argue that hate speech is itself a form of violence, and responding to such ideas with violence can therefore be rationalized.
Is Religion Welcome on Campus?
Students at the SF State protest appeared to echo such sentiments. Although some condemned the use of violence against the Christian speakers, others seemed more ambivalent about it. "He dropped a match on a powder keg," said one student. "Having somebody on a campus with a sign like that should be considered hate speech," explained another.
So what to make of all this?
On the one hand, the message brought by the religious activists was clearly not a peaceful one. One must sincerely doubt whether they actually planned to change any minds that day. Being provocative is a more likely goal.
On the other hand, responding by pouring coffee and throwing punches is completely juvenile. Bad ideas must be countered with good ideas. Violence is never acceptable no matter how offensive we might find something.
The Future of Free Speech
Regardless of your religious affiliation, the trend on college campuses to equate speech with violence is a worrying one. Consider this: how can we determine what types of speech constitute violence? Unlike violence, speech is up for interpretation. What one person might consider hate speech, another might see as a rational argument.
It's hard to misinterpret a punch, but it's easy for an idea to be misconstrued.
Ultimately, we could all benefit from acting more respectfully -- especially if we hope for opposing sides to hear our point of view.