An investigation into the Cleveland State evangelists, their First Amendment rights and effect on campus, and what CSU may be able to do about it.
Written by: Megan Mullaly
“We’re just here because we love souls,” he told me. It was difficult not to laugh. The man was holding business cards that read, “Who will Jesus destroy?” and had said, “[Being gay] is an abomination,” just minutes before I approached him.
On any other day, I would have kept my head down in an attempt to ignore it, but I knew I’d have to approach one of them if I wanted to write this article effectively. If you’re a student at Cleveland State, chances are you know who I’m talking about — the men that seem to appear out of nowhere, holding signs that read, “If you’re a sinner you are ... on your way to Hell,” and preaching their version of the gospel through a megaphone.
They come in groups of two or three, equipped with their “informative” fliers and sandwich board signs. They rotate through their “duties to others’ souls,” which include reciting sermons, passing out fliers, and debating with students. While I remember these men visiting campus a few times during my first semester at Cleveland State, it never felt as intrusive as it has this semester. Whether these men are making up for the year and a half they couldn’t partake in public preaching because of COVID or they enjoy the disturbance they cause on campus, they are visiting Cleveland State more often and with more enthusiasm than ever before.
On September 28th, about one month after their first appearance of the semester, I approached one of the men as he finished preaching. While I never got his name, I was able to record our conversation:
Me: “Are you ... here together?” (In reference to the other man who was holding a sign that read, “Jesus Died 4
You. He Offers Forgiveness. Love Jesus. Obey Jesus. Jesus=Life.”)
Him: “We are.”
Me: “Are you from a church or organization?”
Him: “Uhh...we do have a church that we attend, but we’re just here because we love souls, and we are here to preach the gospel.”
Me: “So you do it in your free time?”
Him: “We do it when school is in session. Fall time, spring time ... so we’re just here to share.”
Me: “And do you live around here?”
Him: “I’m actually 2 hours from here.”
Me: “Do you go to other colleges?”
Him: “We do. We live more central Ohio, so about a dozen schools within a two-hour radius from me that I attend, and we go to and we do this — share the gospel.”
He seemed hesitant to answer my questions, so I thanked him and walked away. I wasn’t surprised to hear he lived two hours away; he had a slight rural accent that implied he wasn’t from the Cleveland area.
I looked over the “Who Will Jesus Destroy?” business card the man had handed me. The front of the card lists twenty categories of people Jesus will “destroy” and the back includes “corroborating” Bible verses, a contact email and a website.
I sat down at the nearest table and typed the website’s URL into my computer. Pinpointevangelism.com is reminiscent of MySpace circa 2006, but the site’s design isn’t as horrifying as its overwhelming amount of content. It hosts pages upon pages of resources for open-air preachers, commonly referred to as evangelists. The site features audio files for preachers to recite, instructions on how to debate “sinners,” and a shop to purchase tracts, which are religious fliers and business cards.
I was brought back to reality by a man’s voice booming behind me. While I was distracted, two new evangelists had arrived to relieve the others. I had only a few minutes before I had to head to class, but I was left with more questions after visiting PinPoint Evangelism’s website.
I gathered my things and approached the newest preacher:
Me: “Hi! Can I ask how you ... got involved with this group? I looked up the website.”
Him: “I don’t know. What is that, I guess?”
Me: “It’s the ... they were handing these out. It’s the ‘What Will Jesus Destroy’ card and it has a website on the back. Just wondering how you guys got involved with that.”
Him: “I don't think that's our group here. It’s just a tract that somebody sells or something that we buy ... so I’m not sure who that is there. I didn’t pass this out.”
Me: “And do you guys have a group that you’re part of?”
Him: “We’re just Christians. We love the Lord. We’re not really, I don’t know, we don’t really have a name I guess ... We just try to obey the Bible — that’s our heart — is to obey the Scriptures, obey the Bible, and, not only to live out the gospel — live out the scriptures — to try to teach others to do the same.”
I had assumed the men were part of a larger organization, like PinPoint Evangelism, that assigned locations for them. But after talking with two of the evangelists, it appeared they had their own group that had evolved from a congregation or Bible study of some kind. At first, I was surprised they would drive four hours round-trip to open-air preach but quickly realized why they would make the trek to universities like Cleveland State.
Because the men live in central Ohio, the majority of universities near them are religious or lacking diversity, and most of the students grew up in the area. It is likely that these students have beliefs parallel to the evangelists, so the men don’t view these schools as having high soul-saving potential.
On the other hand, universities like Cleveland State are located in more populated areas and have diverse student bodies. Students come from varying backgrounds; they may be outspoken females, subscribe to different religions, or identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. While the evangelists need to make a two-hour drive to reach universities like Cleveland State, these schools have a much higher soul-saving potential for them.
Evangelists, by definition, spread the teachings of Jesus Christ in an effort to convert non-Christians to Christianity. While the accuracy of their message has been debated for many years, evangelists are able to spread the teachings, regardless of accuracy, because of the First Amendment.
almost every student I talked to had the same question: “Are these men allowed to be here?”
Freedom of Speech
After class, I returned to the Student Center Plaza and joined the group of students that had gathered near the evangelists. Some were getting tarot card readings, others were holding a pride flag, but almost every student I talked to had the same question: “Are these men allowed to be here?”
While the evangelists are not members of the campus community, which Cleveland State defines as “students, student groups, faculty, staff, and employees of the university and their invited guests,” they are permitted to preach throughout certain areas of campus. Outdoor areas, such as the Student Center Plaza, are public property. Because of this, the men are able to exercise their freedom of speech, even if the accuracy of their message is up for debate.
These men are offered further protection under Cleveland State’s “Expressive Activity Policy.” The document opens with, “The purpose of the policy is to promote the free exchange of ideas on university property and the safe and efficient operation of the university.” It goes on to state that free speech is permitted, “whether or not [the person is] affiliated with the university” and that “the university recognizes the constitutional freedoms of speech, press, and peaceable assembly guaranteed by the United States and Ohio constitutions.”
Disrupting Campus Wellbeing
I accepted the men’s protection under the First Amendment and Cleveland State’s “Expressive Policy Act.” But knowing that I was not their target audience, I was sensitive to my fellow CSU students and as the preaching persisted, I noticed it became increasingly disruptive.
The men targeted women, implying that they should be submissive and follow men’s orders, and that they are going to Hell if they fail to comply. One evangelist told a fellow editor at The Vindicator that he would not speak with her and gave her his wife’s contact information instead. They also targeted women that dress “immodestly,” implying that women are only dressed appropriately if covered from head-to-toe.
The men targeted people that practice different religions, implying that they do not practice the “one true religion” and are going to Hell if they fail to convert to Christianity.
The men targeted people that are pro-abortion, holding anti-abortion signs with graphic images, implying that those who have had an abortion are going to Hell.
The men targeted LGBTQ+ students, implying that anyone that identifies as LGBTQ+ is going to Hell. When a student asked if it’s okay to be gay, one of the men responded with, “It’s okay to be gay ... anyone can be joyful, and that’s the definition of the word.” He went on to say that “[Being gay] is an abomination.”
While the men include a variety of sins in their sermons, identifying as LGBTQ+ appears to be their largest emphasis. Their sermons and tracts directly reference homosexuality, while other sins are often described in less detail.
Because I identify as heterosexual and cisgender, I reached out to LGBTQ+ students to get a more accurate representation of the evangelists’ impact.
Sam Miller, a social work intern at Cleveland State’s LGBTQ+ Services Center, told me:
“Not only have I felt unsafe and threatened by the evangelists on campus, I also have been worried about other LGBTQ+ students at CSU. Many of our students come to our center because it is [a] place where it feels safe to be who they are. Unfortunately, they may not feel safe being LGBTQ+ at home or in other aspects of their life. When there are evangelists outside our window yelling and holding signs that imply LGBTQ+ people are sinners who are going to burn in Hell, that makes it feel less safe and welcoming in our center. While students may feel comfortable in our space, they know that when they step outside they are going to be insulted and ridiculed for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”
Lynn Nichols, copy editor of The Vindicator, said:
“I was in the plaza on two of the days that ‘open-air preachers’ came to campus. More than holding their signs and yelling at a crowd, I saw the group harass individual students. Several female students were told that they were dressed immodestly — unless they wore [a] hijab, and then the preachers insisted that Muslims are going to Hell. One of my friends was told that he spends too much time on his appearance, so apparently, you can go to Hell for dressing too nicely. I remember when one preacher said that everyone should pray or speak to a priest, [but] going to therapy was ungodly ... LGBTQ+ students and allies take these visits as an opportunity to rally together, and that sense of community is always comforting. But I still dread it every time I look out the window and see a crowd outside, because hearing this kind of hate speech on campus makes me feel unsafe and unvalued. As a Christian and a bisexual person, I see love and acceptance in my God. I didn’t hear that message from these preachers.”
Even some Christian students and students that participate in expressive activities felt threatened, as evangelists with controversial messages may amplify negative stereotypes of people who partake in their religion or similar activities.
As the evangelists’ presence became increasingly more disturbing, I began to question, “Are these men allowed to be here if they put students in distress?”
What Violates The Expressive Activity Policy?
While researching for this article, I discovered the Digital Media Law Project, an organization that offered “legal assistance to independent journalism” for seven years before pivoting to provide “a range of tools to meet the legal needs of online media.”
In their article titled, “Access to Public Property,” Digital Media Law Project states:
“Although public school and university buildings are not wholly open to the public, some parts of a campus may be considered a public forum. If a school's large open quad is accessed from public sidewalks and streets and freely used by the general public with no apparent objection from the school administration, then the quad may be considered ‘dedicated’ to public use, and therefore more like the traditional public forums of the public park and sidewalk ... Remember that because public schools are not entirely public forums, school administrators often have the discretion to restrict the entry of outsiders, particularly while the school is in session.”
While not explicitly stating that public universities can restrict public access during school hours, the Digital Media Law Project’s reminder inspired me to revisit Cleveland State’s “Expressive Activities Policy.”
Upon revisiting the policy, I was intrigued by the number of points Cleveland State may be able to act upon. The two that are most compelling are:
In Paragraph A2, “The university shall not prohibit any individual from engaging in noncommercial expressive activity on campus, so long as the individual’s conduct is lawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the university. The university also recognizes the need to preserve and protect its property, students, guests and employees of the university, and to ensure the effective operation of educational, business and related activities of the university. Expressive activities on the university’s campus may be subject to reasonable regulation with regard to the time, place, and manner of the activities when in the service of a significant university interest if such regulations are viewpoint and content neutral and provide for ample alternative means for expressive activities ... No policy can address every possible activity or situation that may occur on university property, and the university reserves the right to address such situations as circumstances warrant.”
In Paragraph G1, “Any ... activity that significantly disrupts the ability of the university to effectively and peacefully teach students ... is prohibited.”
Even though freedom of speech is protected on Cleveland State’s Student Center Plaza, the university may be able to act if students' wellbeing is significantly impacted. While they must maintain “content neutral,” Cleveland State can prohibit expressive activity that “disrupts the ability of the university to effectively and peacefully teach students” and/or “meets the definition of harassment.”
While interviewing students, faculty and staff for this article, I discovered that a group of Cleveland State faculty and staff members were gathering resources for students affected by the evangelists, and I was directed to Interim Dean of Students, Ali Martin Scoufield. She informed me that CSU is working on publishing a list of resources for students to utilize if they feel threatened by the messages and stereotypes the evangelists promote.
I also reached out to Cleveland State University President Harlan Sands to ask about whether he was aware of the evangelists and to find out about any action the university may be able to take. He informed me that he has been speaking with Cleveland State’s new Vice President for Campus Engagement, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Dr. Flapp Cockrell, on how to move forward, and he also stated that, “CSU is — and always will be — committed to doing everything we possibly can to support our LGBTQ+ communities.”
While it is unclear the exact actions Cleveland State may be able to take, hopefully an agreement is on the horizon, so students can feel safe and welcome on their campus.
If you feel you have been harassed, please file a complaint by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember that Cleveland State defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies an individual equal access to the individual’s education program or activity.”