The Oak Grove preacher’s free speech

An opinion

By Jake Williams

Timothy “The Oak Grove Preacher” Metcalf is required to fill out a monthly permit at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Center for Student Life to preach on what he calls “a grassy knoll” between Leonard and Wilson halls, he said in an Oct. 11 interview in a Davis Hall classroom.

That same day in the Oak Grove, members of the Secular Student Alliance,regarded as a “special interest organization” by IUP, were distributing a survey questionnaire to gauge public opinion about “Oak Grove preachers.”

“We have constructed this survey in such a way as to gain an unbiased consensus by polling the faculty/staff/students,” the questionnaire reads. “The information you submit will be combined and copied, then mailed to the IUP President, as well as the aforementioned men who preach to the IUP community.”

However, the document narrows allowable responses.

“Responses that are blatantly rude and profane will be considered illegitimate and will not be included in the sample,” it reads.

Thus, the student group’s expressed interest in an unbiased sample evidently does not extend to survey responses that are biased against the group’s biases. Only agreeable respondents need apply.

Richard D. Kutz, director of the IUP Center for Student Life,  reports that members of the student group, like preacher Metcalf, were required to and did secure a “non-commercial solicitation registration” for its Oak Grove activity.

Metcalf, who has been preaching at IUP for 20 years, has been filling out the permit for nearly 10 of those years after a fellow Oak Grove preacher fell under a legal cloud that led to adoption of the university’s permit policy.

The Oak Grove sits on public property owned by IUP, a public institution. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies there in its fullest effect.

It was on similar constitutional grounds that Douglas Parks, a street preacher in Ohio, won a 2005 federal court case  in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6thCircuit because he had been barred from preaching on a Columbus street.

The court upheld Parks’ right to free speech under the First Amendment. He was allowed to continue preaching in public.

In its ruling the 6th Circuit court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court: “The right to free speech . . . may not be curtailed simply because the speaker’s message may be offensive to his audience.” In the Parks case, Cleveland “applied a regulation in such a way that restricts the freedom of speech of one of its citizens,” the appeals court ruled. “The First Amendment does not tolerate this.”

If the Secular Student Alliance or Indiana University of Pennsylvania seeks to restrict preacher Metcalf’s free-speech rights, then the Parks precedent in the 6thCircuit may be instructive here in the 3rd Circuit, as well.

Jake Williams, a sophomore journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Matamoras, Pa.

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