Students allege discriminatory speech from Sproul preachers

Photo of Sproul plaza with wet floor and people walking
Kyle Garcia Takata/Staff
People walk through Sproul Plaza to travel across UC Berkeley’s campus. Many students raise personal safety concerns after alleged incidents of hate speech from preachers on Sproul.

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Over the past several weeks, students walking through Sproul Plaza have said they heard offensive rhetoric from preachers standing on the edge of campus blasting allegedly extremist speech.

For some students, it is easiest to keep their head down, ignore the speech and hurry past Sproul Plaza on their way to class.

But for other students, especially those from Muslim and LGBTQ+ communities, this is not an option. UC Berkeley senior Yasmeen Fahmy and three friends were walking past Sproul Plaza on Sept. 9 when the preachers allegedly pointed at them and told them all Muslims would go to hell.

Neha Sharma, campus senior and programming director for the student-led Queer Alliance Resource Center, or QARC, said they have talked to multiple people who go out of their way to avoid Sproul Plaza because they don’t want to have a similar experience.

The preachers often stand outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union and can be heard from the fourth floor of the building, where QARC and bridges are located.

“Needless to say, the fourth floor (of MLK) is supposed to be a safe space for these communities, and we can hear this extremely offensive rhetoric when we’re trying to do work as UC Berkeley students; when we’re planning events to make them feel safe at Cal; when we’re providing resources,” Sharma said.

Campus diversity also plays a role in the allegedly harmful nature of these speakers, according to Maybeck High School senior Bose Hewitt. He noted there are many people on campus allegedly being “demonized” by the preachers.

Hewitt said that because campus has a population with many differing views, there may be people who come to campus who believe allegedly extremist speech is accepted by the campus community.

“It just really bugs me that Free Speech Plaza is being used for this. It feels like a perversion of what it could be,” Hewitt said. “Free speech is a great thing, and there are so many great ways it can be used, so it is sad to see it being used as a platform for hate.”

Fahmy added that it wasn’t until she talked to her non-Muslim friends that she realized what had happened to her was not okay.

Many Muslims who grow up in the United States will downplay experiences of Islamophobia, according to Fahmy, since it was so pervasive when they were growing up.

Sharma added that students can hear the preachers even with headphones on and the windows closed.

“I can’t ignore them when I am sitting in the fourth floor of MLK in a Queer safe space and can hear them saying everything about my identity is wrong,” Sharma said. “Ignoring a problem does not make it go away.”

According to the campus Free Speech website, hate speech — generally accepted as speech that insults or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of protected attributes such as race, religion, gender and sexual orientation — is not an exception to the First Amendment. While the campus condemns hate speech, it is only illegal if it falls into one of three categories.

These categories are incitement of illegal activity, speech that could reasonably be perceived as an immediate threat to a person’s physical safety and harassment in an educational institution aimed at an individual on the basis of a protected characteristic.

“While UC Berkeley has an important legacy in protecting the right to free speech, we have an equally important legacy of leading movements for social justice and doing what we can as a campus to create our own internal culture of care and support,” said Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Dania Matos in a campuswide email.

Matos added that public universities have an obligation to allow speech of all kinds, including controversial speakers. She noted that speech occurring technically off-campus is also protected.

Chris Andrus, one of many to preach in front of Sproul, said while he would never say Muslims were going to hell, he believed that God gave messages to specific preachers as they spoke. He added he sometimes disagrees with the other preachers.

“Only God knows who goes to hell,” Andrus said. “I preach a message of salvation.”

Andrus said he continues to go to Sproul because he wants to expose campus community members to his religious message.

He added that he believes the right to free speech means allowing people to speak their minds regardless of their views.

“If there’s not freedom for all, there’s not freedom at all,” Andrus said.

Andrus also said the preachers generally welcome differing views and conversations with those who disagree with them.

Sharma acknowledged that people have the right to believe what they want and say what they want. They added, however, that the right to speak does not mean the right to speak anywhere, and they believe the preachers should not be welcome at an institution of public education.

Fahmy said that even though she did not feel safe walking past Sproul, she recognized the speech was protected under free speech, so she initially downplayed her experience.

“I don’t want to be walking around thinking, ‘Oh, at least he didn’t tear my scarf off,’ ” Fahmy said. “There needs to be more awareness because either people don’t know that it is happening or they don’t take it seriously.”

Fahmy said the first step to mitigating the harm the preachers are allegedly causing is education. Fahmy added that it is okay if people do not know about Muslims or Islam, but they should not spread ignorance or hate.

Fahmy noted that education can be done in the form of counterprotesting, which Sharma has participated in. Sharma added that they felt counterprotesting was the best way to make it so that preachers can no longer spread alleged hate on campus.

Sharma said a group of LGBTQ+ students counterprotested Sept. 30 and tried to converse with the preachers. They alleged that while the preachers claimed to be open to conversations, they talked over the counterprotesters with loudspeakers.

“Speaking to someone through a loudspeaker and not letting them speak is not listening,” Sharma said. “It is not having a conversation.”

The staff of the Gender Equity Resource Center and the Multicultural Community Center supported students during the protest, Sharma said. They provided markers, flags, water and other resources so students could continue to counter the alleged hate speech.

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore added that in addition to these centers, Counseling and Psychological Services is available for student mental and emotional support, and the Be Well at Work program is available for staff and faculty.

If a student is directly confronted and subjected to harassment that refers to a protected identity, they may also file a complaint with the Office of the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, according to Gilmore.

Sebastian Cahill contributed to this report. 

Contact Maria Young at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.