UPDATE at 4:14 p.m.
When a group of demonstrators sets up a protest at 13th Street and Montgomery Avenue to promote their hell-filled agenda, the Temple University community takes notice.
One particular group, led by Pastor Aden Rusfeldt, is known to travel around the Philadelphia region, including Temple, protesting against LGBTQ people, members of other religions, feminists and other groups. This often elicits angry shouts from passersby and various organized counterprotests from students.
Rustfeldt wrote in an email to The Temple News that his group demonstrates at college campuses to help students “save themselves some pain.”
“[We want to get them] to see outside their small [sic] self-imposed box, so they can clearly see the love of Jesus,” Rustfeldt wrote.
These outbursts can lead to questions about what environment a campus should provide for its faculty and students.
Matt Wray, an associate professor of sociology, said there are two schools of thought about the definition of campus culture.
“There’s a lot of focus on understanding the campus and the college experience as a place that should be a safe space where people who are taking risks with socially marginalized identities can work out their identities,” Wray said. “But there is a line of thinking that says democracies are not safe spaces.”
Jason Del Gandio, an associate professor of communication and social influence, said these protests can be categorized as “clear hate speech.”
“It makes an unsafe environment for many members of the Temple University community,” Del Gandio said. “I do support free speech, but on a college campus, I’m not sure what purpose this speech is serving. It’s not intellectually stimulating, and it’s no type of safe space other than a hate space.”
These conflicting mindsets materialize in the form of reactions from different campus groups.
Temple Police approaches these groups with a “neutral mindset” and focuses on protecting the First Amendment, said Charlie Leone, the executive director of Campus Safety Services.
“The First Amendment protects everyone,” Leone said. “We don’t want to infringe on anyone’s First Amendment rights. …Officers would intervene if it becomes a public safety issue.”
Leone added that while TUPD protects everyone’s rights and safety, it does not condone hate speech.
Tiffenia Archie, the assistant vice president of the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership, said her department understands the negative effects the groups can have and tries to organize peaceful counterprotests.
“We rarely get complaints from students because I think students recognize that we, as a campus community, don’t agree with [Rusfeldt’s] message,” Archie said. “That said, though we don’t get complaints does not mean students are not affected, so IDEAL is motivated to work even harder to build an inclusive campus.”
Students have responded to the group by engaging in conversation with them, ignoring them or creating humorous counterprotests, like standing next to the groups holding signs that read “Legalize Ranch” and passing out pamphlets that read “10 out of 10 people die.”
“All responses are legitimate, but in my personal opinion, if you’re going to counterprotest them, it’s probably most effective to be humorous and upbeat,” Del Gandio said. “If you keep your protests humorous, it can help you handle your emotional response. When you do that, you’re dismissing their politics and saying, ‘It’s ludicrous.’”
Bella Zanoni, a sophomore public relations major, said she has had several encounters with these groups.
“I would challenge them on some of the things that they were saying about women, gay people, Muslims and Jewish people,” she said. “I felt angry in the moment. After that, I was able to brush it off.”
Zanoni said these groups on campus start conversations about identity and acceptance.
“When I walk past these protests and I see all of these Temple students standing up and saying that they don’t agree with them and…it makes me feel at home and welcomed,” she said.
Wray said that while there are several opinions of how a campus should react, the university should ultimately use these groups as a way to get the community thinking.
“Really, the job of the liberal arts campus is to pay attention to the political and emotional reactions, but we have an obligation to insist on an intellectual response,” Wray said. “Are they acting in good faith or bad faith? Are they really here to argue for recognition of their values or are they here just to be violent?”
Update: This story has been updated to clarify one of Bella Zanoni’s quotations.