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Boise State and the First Amendment: How ‘campus preacher’ sparked a community conversation

Photo courtesy Hunter Poulin

Anthony Donohoe first heard about the public demonstration happening on the Boise State campus during one of his morning classes. Thinking it would be similar to the other demonstrations he’s seen in the past, the sophomore history major decided to walk over to The Quad and observe the event.

That’s when he noticed the commotion.

“A couple of my classmates and I realized there’s this huge crowd that’s just assembled around this guy,” Donohoe said. “That’s when I had the idea pop into my head about the banana suit.”

After a quick visit to his dorm, Donohoe returned to the scene dressed in a banana suit and sporting a sign that read “legalize arson,” easing the tension among students with its absurdity.

Student holding a sign that read "legalize arson" standing behind "campus preacher" Keith Darrell.
[Student Anthony Donohoe holding a sign that reads “legalize arson” standing behind “campus preacher” Keith Darrell]
Photo courtesy Hunter Poulin

“Honestly, I just found all of it funny. Like, I don’t take stuff like this seriously at all,” Donohoe said. “I met up with my friend there, I wasn’t sure, we were just there to kind of just watch, because we thought it was funny.”

Donohoe is just one example of a reaction students may have upon experiencing this kind of discourse.

Being a public university, Boise State sees its fair share of protests and demonstrations every year. More often than not, these presenters are able to come and go without causing any problems for the university.

On the occasion where things do escalate, students are often left wondering where the university draws the line between freedom of speech and something that is more disruptive and harmful, and therefore isn’t protected by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment Applied to University Campuses

The rights guaranteed by the First Amendment include the right to freedom of religion, free speech, press, assembly and petition; all of which are exercised on Boise State’s campus through a variety of events and activities.

One of the most common ways through which freedom of speech is expressed at the university is through demonstrations.

“I actually like it when people demonstrate or are protesting something but in a calm demeanor because I actually want to hear what they’re talking about. I want to hear their reasoning, you know, because I’m the type of person who likes to hear both sides of the story,” said Jayne Harris, a sophomore in Boise State’s pre-nursing program.

Harris was one of the many students who witnessed the public campus demonstrations led by Keith Darrell on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Darrell, the evangelical Christian demonstrator known for his open-air preaching, is not the first to exercise his First Amendment rights on the Boise State campus.

Compared to past religious demonstrations, this specific event garnered a large crowd of students, many of whom were upset by what they were hearing.

“Most people are going here to, like, feel comfortable and just get to their classes and do their own thing,” said Jack Lawford, a freshman computer science major. “They don’t really want to have the time taken out of their day to be insulted by these people from outside of campus that come in just to do that.” 

Lawford was not the only student to communicate their concern to the university, raising the question of whether there was a line between free speech and the provocation of discomfort or harm among students.

The Office of the Dean of Students was made aware of the demonstration early Tuesday morning, with campus security and Boise police officers watching from a few feet away. However, no efforts were made to remove the demonstrators until the second day, not even after one of the demonstrators physically shoved a student on the first day.

“I think [security] could have been quicker with it because — if I’m not wrong — they were removed from campus earlier on the second day,” Lawford said. “But I mean, after the physical altercation, I believe they should have been taken off campus immediately.”

The decision to have the demonstrators removed from their location in front of Riverfront Hall by campus police came from the Dean of Students. According to Christian Wuthrich, the Dean of Students, his office aims to ensure that students are represented in university policies and activities. They directly work with public safety to monitor conduct on campus.

Keith Darrel in handcuffs getting taken off campus by Boise Police.
[Keith Darrel getting escorted off campus after his arrest]
Photo courtesy Hunter Poulin

Boise State’s Policies on University Space

Part of the responsibility placed on The Dean of Students includes upholding Policy 1100, a policy based on the First Amendment meant to outline the use of university space.

“We have to live within rules as a university; we don’t just get to pick and choose who comes to campus and who does certain things,” Wuthrich said. “For people who come onto campus and speak, we need to treat everybody fairly and with equity. If you don’t like what someone is saying and you haven’t read the policy, you might be puzzled by our response.”

The policy assures students and faculty that it “recognizes and supports the rights of free expression and speech, and remains a place for the broadest expression of views.” 

Finding a balance between protecting the First Amendment and adhering to the emotional well-being of students can be tricky, which Policy 1100 addresses.

“The University has a significant interest in preserving its limited space and employee resources, and must accordingly balance this interest with its recognition and support of free expression and Speech Activities attendant to the University learning environment and the robust expression of ideas,” the policy reads.

In other words, limitations on this expression can only be enforced when it presents conflict with the normal uses of the campus, the rights of others and lawful conduct.

Section 4.2.10 of Policy 1100 lists the guidelines for oral presentations on campus. According to the policy, “So long as it does not constitute a Disruptive Noise or violate the University’s anti-harassment policies, speech-making, demonstrations, and other forms of oral presentation are allowed in all areas of the University.”

The Demonstration that Sparked Conversation

In the case of Keith Darrell, his removal was based on disruption of university functions. Under Policy 1100, this disruption was classified under “disruptive noise.”

Some students heard Darrell’s preaching from several buildings around campus, and many had trouble moving through campus with such a big crowd blocking the flow of student foot traffic.

“I think the line is drawn when people come onto campus, if it’s disturbing classes,” said Hunter Poulin, a sophomore business major. 

Poulin claimed the noise coming from the demonstration was disruptive, which was especially problematic considering the fall semester was only in its second week.

Other students believed that the message being spread by the demonstrators was more problematic than what prompted campus security to remove them.

“I understand wanting to spread your message. But when the message you’re spreading is just telling people that they’re wrong about everything and that they’re living their life the wrong way and that there’s nothing they can do to fix that,” Lawford said.  “And then, calling people out, like, attacking them for really basic things, and you aren’t voicing your opinion — you’re just attacking people at that point.”

The Dean of Students has received reports and complaints from students expressing concern over things Darrell said. Still, Wuthrich emphasized the role of the university in providing a platform for diverse opinions.

“It’s part of public discourse. We’re here to promote education and I’m guessing that there are just as many people who are opposed to the message as there are in agreement with it,” Wuthrich said. “We have to bear in mind that we represent the community and what happens in our community.”

The choice of whether to listen to the demonstrators, defend one’s opinion or simply walk away is up to the student, which according to Wuthrich makes all the difference.

“There’s obviously an allure to what is occurring,” Wuthrich said. “Students can also walk on by and not engage with anybody no matter who is there. As an example, our students walk right by all the booths that are on the quad; they tend to gather when these gentlemen come to campus.” 

Wuthrich made it clear that, regardless of who is allowed on campus, it does not reflect the university’s stance on any given social issue or topic.

“[Students and faculty] want to be assured that we support their values; and we support a lot of values — we support a lot of human rights — but we don’t get to pick and choose which ones get to have a platform on our campus,” Wuthrich said.

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