Hundreds of Eastern Washington University students gathered to protest Thursday afternoon when three religious activists arrived on campus with signs and portable speakers, denouncing abortion and preaching messages intolerant of LGBTQ people.
The preachers included Bruce Wakeman, who leads a group called the Lilac City Bible Fellowship and is known to preach on street corners in downtown Spokane.
As students crowded around Wakeman and the other preachers, EWU police worried the demonstrations would turn violent and called in backup from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and the Spokane and Cheney police departments.
In an email, EWU spokesman Dave Meany said one of the preachers, Thomas R. Meyer, “was arrested for spitting on a student and spanking another on the buttocks.”
Police did not take Meyer to jail but recommended a charge of fourth-degree assault.
Meany said the religious group has previously demonstrated on the Cheney campus, but students haven’t engaged with the men as they did on Thursday.
Students told KHQ they considered the preachers’ messages “hate speech” and questioned why the men were allowed to demonstrate on campus. Some accused the preachers of making racist statements.
EWU is a public institution, and hateful rhetoric generally is protected by the First Amendment unless it incites violence.
While many students shouted and confronted the preachers, some printed and held up signs that said “OK, boomer” – a retort meant to dismiss members of the baby boomer generation as patronizing or out of touch.
The vexing phrase has become an online meme and a rallying cry for millennials and members of Generation Z. On Tuesday, a 25-year-old New Zealand lawmaker uttered the phrase to shut down heckling by an older member of Parliament during debate over a climate change bill.
The protest began to wind down when the student body president addressed the crowd, urging peers to stop giving the preachers attention.
“Today we saw one of the rights of our Constitution unfold in real time. Our students and campus community members exercised their right to speak freely and also supported one another,” EWU President Mary Cullinan said in a statement Thursday evening.
“It is events like these that test our commitments and values,” Cullinan said. “I deeply appreciate all the work that our faculty, staff and students do to ensure that our Eastern Washington University campuses are inclusive and safe places for us all to work and study.”
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