Return of street preachers brings new concerns

Jeers and beers and boos won’t stop them.

Nor will concerns that their raucous rhetoric is meant to bait universities into costly lawsuits.

They’re the street preachers who frequent campus every school year.

And judging from the sometimes profane, sometimes ironical back-and-forth between about 150 students and the preachers Tuesday, it looked like the 2008-2009 preaching season had arrived.

Whether this season will be as heated as earlier years — when a student was accused of trying to strangle a preacher and when a student filed a harassment complaint against another — is yet to be decided.

Sure, one of the preachers Tuesday carried a sign advertising, a Web site offering free legal assistance to preachers who feel their First Amendment rights have been violated. Sure, another preacher present, John Kranert, was investigated after a student filed an assault complaint against him.

And sure, a lot of the hell-and-brimstone messages on the grassy knoll outside Russel M. Cooper Hall had been seen and heard before, like a sign warning, “Repent of your wicked heart of unbelief.”

But there were no arrests at Tuesday’s relatively tranquil events, and it seems students’ major concern — apart from the normal quips about intolerance and Biblical references — was worry about the preachers’ habit of videotaping and recording audio.

Mireille Petion, a junior majoring in Africana studies and psychology, said she doesn’t know whether the videos are going to be made public — and arranged in a way to make students look bad.

“When people start to get angry and shout, then they start recording,” she said.

“These guys are sweeping the entire audience, trying to get as many students as they can,” said Steven Guzman, a pre-med freshmen majoring in microbiology. “The way they’re presenting it, they’re showing it as a non-believer, as a sinner.”

Kranert said he doesn’t see a problem in recording without permission — because, he said, he’s on public property and is not trying to profit off of students.

“We don’t have to ask for waivers,” he said.

Kranert is right, according to several in the media-law field.

Ken Killebrew, who teaches media law in the USF School of Mass Communications, said people don’t have to ask for waivers before videotaping, photographing or recording audio of others, or even posting the media in a public forum such as a Web site.

Rachel Fugate, a media lawyer at Tampa law firm Thomas & LoCicero, agreed, saying there’s a legal gray area in cases when the videographer inserts his or her opinion on the content, like in a video’s title or accompanying text.

“If you start depicting somebody as something that maybe they’re not — editing in a fashion — that could raise concerns,” she said.

It’s unclear whether such editorializing is going on in the preachers’ videos. But it is clear that several such videos have been posted online.

Larry Keffer, a Tampa-based street preacher also present Tuesday, appears to have used the handle Preacher717 to post a video on YouTube called “Sensitive Sodomites Call Police on Street Preacher,” involving USF gay-rights activists hosting an anti-discrimination event on campus. Another video claims that University Police silenced campus preachers, saying UP censored them in a clip of text.

USF spokesman Michael Hoad said the University might consider working with Student Government to notify students that they can be videotaped, but doesn’t think such notification is necessarily the administration’s responsibility.

“In terms of, is the University your parent, no we are not,” he said.

Despite the Internet presence and new concerns about it, many things haven’t changed in the face of technology, including the range of student reactions to preachers.

One student offered Kranert a swig of beer from one of three Heineken bottles he said he’d brought so he could drink while watching the preachers.

“You’re going to burn in hell for a Heineken?” Kranert said.

Jonathan Noriega, a junior majoring in international studies, said he wasn’t fazed by the preachers’ promises that gays are destined for hell.

“Why would I want to go to heaven?” said Noriega, who is gay. “If all gays are going to hell, that’s where the party is.”