Cooper Hall preacher, UP resolve situation

“You’re twisting my arm, sir,” street preacher Adam LaCroix yelled, as USF Police Officer Philip Eonda escorted him away from Cooper Hall in handcuffs, as shown in a recent video uploaded to YouTube by TeamJesusPreachers.

On Nov. 19, 2015, LaCroix was preaching outside Cooper Hall using a sound amplifier. As the video uploaded on Jan. 5 showed, a small crowd of students gathered around LaCroix, some of whom cheered as he was escorted away.

In his police report, Eonda stated he was dispatched to Cooper Hall on account of complaints that LaCroix’s amplified preaching was disturbing classes going on in the building. Three calls had been made to the USF Police Department (USFPD) previously on the same day about a similar disturbance in the same area.

“As I exited my vehicle and walked in the direction of the north side of (Cooper Hall) I could hear a male voice speaking very loud via amplification,” Eonda wrote in the report.

Eonda also noted in his report LaCroix was in violation of Florida State Statute (FSS) 877.13, which concerns penalties for disruption in educational institutions. The statute states it is unlawful for anyone to knowingly “disrupt or interfere with the lawful administration or functions of any educational institution, school board, or activity on school board property in (Florida).” Violations result in a misdemeanor.

According to USFPD Captain Meg Ross, what qualifies as a disturbance does not depend on whether or not voice amplification was used. If people complain, she said, then there is a disturbance.

“Well, if someone calls and complains that you’re disrupting a classroom then, the fact is, you have violated (FSS 877.13).”  

In the video, Eonda escorts the handcuffed LaCroix away from Cooper Hall to his car, parked between the Library and the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. In the report, Eonda stated he wanted to get LaCroix away from the crowd so he could talk to him.

The controversy in the video surrounds the statement made by Eonda while LaCroix complained about the handcuffs causing him pain.

“You’re going to get the concrete if you don’t shut up,” Eonda can be heard saying in the video.

Ross said use of force is a possibility if suspects resist. Different levels of resistance are based on the statutes.

“If we arrest someone and they resist, they can very likely be taken to the concrete, so it is a reality of what could occur,” Ross said. “It didn’t occur … At this time there is nothing further on that.”

Ross said Eonda called for backup for when he readjusted LaCroix’s handcuffs to make them more comfortable. He was then informed that, although the two cameramen who were filming the incident had been present at previous calls on Nov. 19, LaCroix was not one of the people involved in those disturbance complaints. In the end, LaCroix was released and faced no charges.

Another concern was whether or not LaCroix’s First Amendment rights were violated, specifically his right to free speech, which allows street preachers to come on campus openly.

Charles Haynes, a First Amendment expert at the Religious Freedom Center in Washington D.C. and vice president of the Newseum Institute, said LaCroix has the right to preach, but it is not an unlimited right. The government, both federal and state, has the right to impose limitations on free speech within reasonable means.

“I think reasonable is the key word,” Haynes said.

He stressed that limits should be neutral — not too narrow and cannot single out particular viewpoints. The First Amendment, he said, protects even offensive speech.

“That’s what freedom is,” Haynes said. “Even if it it’s intimidating, even if it’s loud, even if it’s angry … all of that is protected speech under our first amendment, and I think it should be.”

Education is a legitimate, compelling reason to limit speech, he stated. The only remaining question would be police treatment.

According to Ross, LaCroix never filed a complaint against USFPD or the university. Complaints against street preachers are regular occurrences when USF is in session. Currently, there is no set policy or procedure in place for disruptive street preachers. USFPD does respond and notifies people when they are causing a disruption.

“It’s a common problem,” Ross said. “Ordinarily, we don’t have to go out repeatedly in the same day. We ask them to lower their volume and they comply.”

LaCroix told Fox13 his life changed because of street preaching, and he knows his style of preaching isn’t going to appeal to everyone. He said people can choose whether or not to listen.

Eonda wrote in his report that he told LaCroix he could return to preaching in the area around Cooper Hall as long as he didn’t continue to use amplification. Eonda also wrote that LaCroix apologized, saying he was unaware of FSS 877.13.