In the background, Conway said, was the voice of Gary Birdsong — known to students as Gary the Pit Preacher — a prominent fundamentalist Christian speaker frequently on campus. She said Gary’s voice carried over the group’s music, shouting homophobic slurs and white supremacist values.
For more than 30 years, Birdsong has been returning to various North Carolina college campuses. He is typically greeted by a crowd of students who challenge his religious claims and share their own opinions.
Conway said on the day of the dance marathon promotion, Birdsong claimed space in the Pit, disregarding CTFK’s formal reservation for the space.
“He took it as infringing on his space,” Conway said referring to their dancing. “He was infringing on ours.”
Birdsong said he was not bothering the group, and that they were disrupting his first amendment right to preach on campus. He used derogatory terms against the students.
"I was over there," he said. "I wasn't messing with them — they were messing with me."
Birdsong’s style of preaching raises questions about the limits of free speech on campus.
“He was still able to be heard over the music,” Conway said. “It was like talking to a broken record.”
Jen DeNeal, associate director of Ethics and Policy at UNC, said the University does not restrict speakers coming to campus under the Facilities Use and Free Expression policies. She said, however, that harassment is not protected under either of these policies.
“There is a difference between speaking your mind and harassing the people around you,” DeNeal said.
Conway said she recognizes that since UNC is a public university, people should have the right to share and explain their opinions. But there are reservable spaces, she said, and Birdsong must follow the policies.
University spokesperson Kate Luck said in a statement that any student who feels threatened by a campus visitor should call the police.
Luck added that students “...are also strongly encouraged to report incidents of prohibited conduct, such as sexual assault, harassment or discrimination, to the University’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.”
Conway said she repeatedly asked Birdsong to respect her group’s reserved space.
“It only made him more angry,” she said. “He took it out on a student group that I am passionate about.”
She said Birdsong bumped into her and threatened to call the police, telling her that “police are used to ensure Black behavior.”
It was challenging for such a diverse group of students to be competing against one man who calls himself a Christian, Conway said.
“Gary was willing to fight anybody and everybody,” she said. “It gave him more motivation to keep yelling.”
She said she tried to keep a brave face and remain polite as a leader for CTFK recruitment, but she said somebody could have gotten hurt.
“It was scary," Conway said. "I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and what I said was taken out of context. Fighting to be heard — that’s hard. It was a lot. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
Conway said her interaction with Birdsong was scary. She was not sure what would happen next, and was left to deal with a potentially violent and aggressive situation by herself. No staff or professors came to help her, she said.
Conway said she hopes the situation will make the Carolina Union — the body that governs student activities on campus — more aware of situations like the one she experienced.
The Carolina Union did not respond for comment at the time of publication.
Campus preachers like Gary should be allowed to share their thoughts on campus, Conway said. But his extreme rhetoric can have dangerous potential for students' well-being.
“Giving him attention allowed him to continue,” Conway said.