Seems like school officials at Cedarville University (a Baptist college in Ohio) have had enough of student publication, The Ventriloquist—so much so that on Wednesday morning the university President and Vice President for Student Life confiscated all 400 copies of the latest issue.
What set off the administrators? Maybe it’s the recent op-ed by former Campus Community Director Avery Redic, who is gay and wrote about being removed from student government, the campus tour guide team, and a leadership position in the school’s gospel choir after coming out? Or maybe it’s sub-headlines like, I’m Gay. Why I must live in fear at Cedarville, that are critical of the university?
The publication’s staff seems just as puzzled as to why administrators are obsessed with preventing the latest issue from getting into students’ hands. Ventriloquist editor Zach Schneider recalled Wednesday morning’s events in an interview with Generation Progress, which funds the publication through our Journalism Network.
Schneider said the copies were confiscated following a mandatory chapel service for all students, which is when the publication’s staff typically distribute new issues. University President Thomas White and Vice President for Student Life Jonathan A. Wood took the copies from Schneider and his colleagues.
“[Wood] came up to me and said I didn’t have permission to pass out [The Ventriloquist] and he grabbed the copies from my hands,” Schneider said. “I let him have them because I didn’t want to get into a tug-of-war, but asked if I could have the copies back. He just told me they were being confiscated.”
Wood, Cedarville’s Vice President for Student Life and Christian Ministries, was hired last fall following a turnover in university administration—a transition that even piqued the curiosity of The New York Times, which wondered “what kind of Christians” the faculty and students at Cedarville consider themselves.
Despite having the issues confiscated, Schneider said he hasn’t “heard from administrators or received any disciplinary actions.”
We called both White’s and Wood’s offices, but there was no answer and voicemails left have not been returned. But the university’s Executive Director of Public Relations, Mark Weinstein, did provide answers to our questions.
“Yes, they were confiscated,” Weinstein said, when asked if school administrators had collected the copies of the recent issue. “Our school has policies for soliciting and [students] need permission to distribute. It was checked and [The Ventriloquist] did not have permission.”
Which Schneider said is odd, as the publication has been distributing its issues since 2010 without any problems. So we asked Weinstein if perhaps the student handbook’s policies had recently been changed, to which he replied: “Nothing’s been changed in the handbook.”
According to the publication’s website, though the handbook has not changed on campus, student life certainly has:
Over the past year and a half, the university has seen large-scale changes, including a new president, several new vice presidents, new organizational structure, and the departure of several administrators, 12 Bible faculty, and 30+ staff. White has also moved to alter the doctrinal statement and shifted to a strictly complementarian stance; the university no longer permits male students to enroll in Bible classes taught by women.
When asked if the publication could resume distribution after permission is granted, Weinstein said yes. However, Schneider said the publication’s staff has yet to be instructed on how to gain permission without clear rules in the current handbook.
Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, said student media’s rights are limited at private colleges like Cedarville.
“On campus at a private college, the First Amendment doesn’t come into play at all,” LoMonte said. “It’s like a private business.”
So what are students to do then in cases like this?
“It’s not uncommon at all for a private college to provide student a free speech policy that gives students the bare minimum of protections for freedom of speech—beyond what the law requires,” LoMonte said. “Beyond the law, the free and uncensored newspaper is essential to a college community.”
This isn’t the first time students have struggled to produce a publication that serves as an open forum at the university. In 2009, students stopped producing the university-funded newspaper, Cedars, after officials began censoring its content. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the school’s public relations department began reviewing content after university trustees complained about “liberal articles.” According to the Chronicle:
Cedars attracted attention last fall after the Viewpoints section ran columns disapproving of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, arguing that “there was nothing wrong with homosexuality,” and suggesting that “abortion wasn’t a black and white issue,” said a writer for the newspaper who preferred to remain anonymous.
The student editors, in lieu of a final issue, instead distributed a letter to campus that read, in part:
Review by the public-relations department undermines our ability to think critically and engage culture. We grieve the loss of free expression and healthy discourse once found in your newspaper, traits that ought to characterize all vibrant institutions of higher learning.
At the time, Cedars‘ adviser Scott Calhoun, who also teaches English at Cedarville, expressed concern that prior review is “fundamentally at odds with the enterprise of scholastic journalism.” And an administrator, Carl A. Ruby, who expressed that editorial oversight was likely “not the most ideal approach,” was rumored to later have been pushed out by officials who disliked his “welcoming” approach to students who identified as gay or lesbian.
In response to the censorship of Cedars, students then began producing The Ventriloquist, which does not receive funding from the school.