For at least the fourth time since the fall of 2017, Matthew 24 Ministries, a religious group from the Philadelphia area, returned to the Kutztown University campus on Feb. 17, engaging a group of students with hate speech outside South Dining Hall.
This time, though, fewer students gathered to counter the messages of Pastor Aden Rusfeldt and his group.
“They’re getting numb to it,” said KU Police Chief John Dillon.
“And we expect them every semester, so we try to educate,” said Matt Santos, vice president of University Relations and Athletics. “That’s the best thing we can do, obviously, and that’s why we put that message out. Trying to balance free speech with their presence.”
Santos was referring to a statement sent to the entire campus community on Feb. 12 pertaining to demonstrations and hate speech on campus.
“Periodically, our campus is the site of spontaneous demonstrations. Often, the demonstrators are from outside organizations not affiliated with our university,” the statement read in part. “These individuals are permitted by law to demonstrate on the grounds of public institutions, provided they do not disrupt daily operations.
The statement continues: “While we must keep in mind that all individuals have the right to free speech on our campus, our university rejects all forms of racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination.”
Rusfeldt, joined by his wife Mary with a camcorder, an unidentified woman, and two children, “preached” to the students.
“I’m just trying to make America great again,” Aden told the gathered crowd of about 100 just after 2 p.m.
Rusfeldt’s comments were often racially charged.
Holding a sign condemning 32 different groups, such as homosexuals, “rebellious women,” gamers, and the pope to hellfire, spoke from within a 360 foot perimeter established by KU Police, while students gathered on the sidewalk in front of the dining hall. Rusfeldt and his group also held signs saying “women belong in the kitchen,” and “homos are bullies.”
In the crowd of students, one sat back, playing a ukulele and singing.
“I don’t want to engage with these people, because I know that this stuff runs deep, and it’s really hard to get out of, and you can’t persuade them,” said Charis Martin, sophomore applied digital arts major from Boyertown. “I’m here to provide a sort-of moral backup for the students here and spread some positivity.”
Another saw the situation as a joke.
“I wish I brought my clown makeup, because this guy brought the whole circus,” said Jackson Gunelson, a junior cinema, television and media production major from Pottsville.
“I think a lot of people are less upset by it now, and more just frustrated that we have to deal with this every semester because we’re a public campus,” said Caroline Fogarty, a junior anthropology and history major from Kutztown.
Fogarty has been to at least two prior demonstrations by Rusfeldt’s group on campus, in Fall 2017 and Spring 2019 respectively.
“The first couple times, they were harassing people who were just trying to live their lives, and now it’s to the point it’s just annoying.”
Wren Jung, a sophomore studio art major from Media, stepped up to the front of the gathered crowd of students to ask Aden a question.
“Do you know who Joe is?” Jung asked.
“I’m not taking questions from coronavirus people,” Aden responded. Jung was wearing a facemask, which she said was a symbolic gesture regarding his statements.
“I think it’s a joke,” said Jung said afterward. “It’s mostly entertainment rather than anger.”
While Rusfeldt insulted specific members of the crowd, or claimed prominent celebrities were going to hell, the crowd chanted “Kobe” and “Jesus loves feet” intermittently.
“I find this situation hilarious, but that’s probably because I come from a family where I am accepted, so I can totally see why this is not cool for someone who doesn’t come from such a family,” said Jessica Kantrowitz, a sophomore anthropology and sociology major. “I think they’re absolutely ridiculously amusing, though it’s still extremely wrong.”
Donavan McCargo, KU Dean of Students, came down to the scene around 3:30 p.m. to distribute flyers, answering frequently asked questions regarding free speech on campus. The flyers provided resources on who students can speak to should a message be upsetting, concerning, or confusing, including the counseling center, multicultural center, and dean of students office.
Additionally, the flyers explain why speakers can visit campus and how students can respond in a peaceful manner.
“We’re grateful for the support of our university staff and our community, and we’re grateful that we’re taking every attempt possible to be proactive in notifying the campus communities of why these groups are allowed to be on campus and what we can do to respond,” said McCargo. “Obviously, they’re allowed to be here, since we’re a state-funded institution, but we’re grateful that not a lot of students are responding.”
McCargo, chairman of the university’s bias response task force, was glad to see the crowd was smaller than in previous semesters.
“There’s still work to be done,” McCargo added. “The work is always ongoing around bias response and free speech.”