Friday, November 24th, 2017

Traveling “preacher” harasses students on Gorham campus

Hunter Mahon

Posted on October 16, 2017 in News
By USM Free Press

Hunter Mahon

Devyn Adams and their friends were leaving Brooks Dining Hall around 12:30 p.m. early last week when they noticed a large crowd gathering. A man was standing on the hill looking down one of the pathways leading to Brooks. As they got closer, they realized the man was wearing a large sign with things like “sex addicts,” “lewd women,” and “God’s judgement” written across it. The man was reading Bible verses out loud to the gathering crowd of students.

At first, according to Adams, the man was using what Adams called “basic homophobic language.” Adams and their friends stuck and around for a while and then left as they had made other plans. They returned around 2 p.m. The crowd had gotten larger.

The man was Matthew Bourgault, a self described evangelical Christian from Missouri, who is known for bringing his aggressive, and what students call hateful and violent, rhetoric to college campuses across the country. Bourgault is part of a group of so called “open air preachers” who travel to college campuses. The group, “Official Street Preachers” preaches similar rhetoric to that of the more well-known Westboro Baptist Church.

In 2012, Bourgault started a physical altercation with a Christian student, Christian Chessman, at the University of Florida when the student attempted to speak with Bourgault’s two sons. Police at the time told Chessman that Bourgault could be arrested for battery, but Chessman declined to press charges. In 2011 Bourgault was escorted off campus at James Madison University for approaching a student table selling Green Club calendars with the headline “Green is Sexy,” picking one up and proceeding to destroy it.

Adams and their friends went to their dorms and and grabbed some Pride themed items and returned to the hill.

“He was on the hill facing two major walkways,” Adams said, explaining that it seemed like Bourgault had chosen a spot he knew students would be passing frequently. Adams and their group of about six went up the hill to take higher ground. The group held Pride flags and chanted “Love is love.”

Adams said they noticed the crowd gathering closely around the man, and that the crowd was “self policing,” not wanting to engage in any physical altercations. This was when, according to Adams, Bourgault started verbally attacking specific students directly.

Some members of Resident Life in Gorham had been trying to gather students away from Bourgault in front of Lower Brooks. Pizza had been ordered. But many students felt that Bourgault posed a direct threat to their safety, despite campus security and other administration saying he did not, and stayed to confront him directly.

USM administrators and campus police remained in the vicinity of Bourgault and the students. However, the intensity of emotions among certain groups of students was so great that interactions with administrators were not always positive. Gaylon Handy, a sophomore Psychology student, said that Erika Lammarre, rookie USM administrator and Director of Community Standards and Mediation, did not identify herself before aggressively interacting with students.

While standing with friends, Handy was holding a pride flag rolled up. Lamarre allegedly told students that campus police were going to soon be dispersing all of the individuals gathered, including Bourgault. According to Handy, Lamarre was told by students that they would not leave the premise until they were positive Bourgault was gone and they were safe on their campus once more. During this interaction, Lamarre gestured toward Handy firmly.

“Erika pointed at me and said ‘your pride flag could be considered a weapon and you could be arrested,’” Handy said. “I had a very angry response. [Bourgault] incited violence on my campus through microaggressions and when he did that he lost his right to free speech and being on my campus, and Erika didn’t know that.”

Handy went on to say that it felt as though the administration was not doing all they could to support the safety and health of the students. “I’ve never been told by a neutral bystander that I’m the danger,” Handy said. “I feel extremely disrespected. I was told by the administration that I was the problem. Paid administrators told me that I was the problem. I felt marginalized, patronized and attacked by administration.”

In response, Lamarre said that the advice she was giving students, particularly Handy, “was not received in the manner in which it was meant.”

“I just hope the students know how much the staff present were distressed that our students were being spoken to in the manner in which [Bourgault] was speaking,” Lamarre said.

According to Adams, Bourgault admitted to having a weapon and to filming students interactions with him. Adams said from where they were standing it looked like the man had a knife in a holster on his pants. Around 4:30 p.m., he left campus on his own.

As students in Gorham most affected by Bourgault were trying to digest the harassment they had experienced, many wondered why campus security and administration had refused to remove the man from campus.

“Erika [Lamarre] was telling people he was leaving but he didn’t,” Adams said. “She made it sound like he was being removed.”

According to Nancy Griffin, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, Gorham Police were called to asses the situation and found that Bourgault wasn’t violating any laws. According to Griffin, the safety of the students is the number one priority to university, and the situation was being discussed by a number of administrators to go over options in the future. They are also creating a new policing surrounding campus speakers and  freedom of speech on campus which is currently in draft three.

Visitors “cannot engage in hurtful or hateful speech that makes students feel unsafe,” Griffin said.

“He told one student she deserved to be raped,” Adams said. The reason: she wasn’t wearing a bra. Bourgault went on to call students “child molesters” and “whores,” and said that if the police weren’t present, that gay students present would “take him behind the bushes and rape him.”

Adams and about eight of their friends filed crime reports through the USM website. Adams filed a Title IX report for the sexual harassment of students.

Adams added that some of Christian students on campus felt that Bourgault was putting their religion in a bad light, “basically bastardizing their religion,” and that it’s important that people don’t think all Christians hold the same beliefs as Bourgault.

Students like Gabrielle Nelson, junior Linguistics student, and Brenden Pittiglio, sophomore nursing student, explained that Bourgault’s version of Christianity is not what they adhere to. As Christians, Nelson and Pittiglio were frustrated to see Bourgault on campus portraying himself as an authority on morality.

“Jesus wasn’t a hater; he was a lover,” Nelson said. “This man, [Bourgault], was backlashing and throwing a lot of hate and judgement at innocent students. He was showing a lot of misconceptions about what being a Christian is.”

Observing students’ interactions with Bourgault, Nelson and Pittiglio saw a positive side to the visitor coming to campus.

“This event brought a lot of good conversations and did a lot of good,” Nelson said. “I saw the community of students coming together to stand up for love.” Pittiglio also acknowledged that constructive conversations were had and an effort was made for students present to understand one another and to see where they were coming from.

Some Christian students on campus, including Nelson and Pittiglio, have expressed deep concern that their religion has been misrepresented by Bourgault’s presence at USM. Hopes that the community sees Bourgault as an independent entity and outlier of Christianity are not far from their minds.