On April 5, the Southern Accent, the student newspaper of Southern Adventist University, published a news article announcing a non-school-sponsored “Fight Night,” an off-campus boxing event hosted by Southern students. The university received backlash from parents and donors. It is unclear whether donors withdrew promised funds, as information from administrative voices has been conflicting.
Later in the day that the Accent’s original news article was released, administration mandated that the article be taken down from the newspaper’s website. It also emailed an official statement regarding the issue to students, denouncing the event.
Southern Adventist University does not support violence in any form and does not condone the organization of or attendance at the upcoming boxing event that was mentioned in the recent Accent article. Furthermore, we do not believe this event, which begins during the Sabbath hours, represents the high ideals of Sabbath keeping that we, as a Seventh-day Adventist university, embrace. Southern expects primary attention be given to worship, rest, Christian fellowship, and service from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. Throughout the Bible, including Proverbs 3:31, we are called to reject the ways of the violent.
. . .
Ellen White speaks out against brutal sports such as boxing, saying “The love of domination, the pride in mere brute force, the reckless disregard of life, are exerting upon the youth a power to demoralize that is appalling” (Education, p. 210).
Southern Adventist University has a higher expectation for conduct than that of the secular world around us. We pray that the students and employees of this institution will daily exhibit that higher calling whether on campus or in their private lives, living out the principles found in Philippians 4:8.”
Such official statements from the university are very rare and do not typically occur in relation to other off-campus events or movements.
When Accent staff attempted to publish an editorial explaining why they wrote the article the way they did and apologizing for printing it in any way that could have been misinterpreted, the school prohibited publishing the editorial and instead banned any further articles addressing the topic of the fight night. It also required that everything the Accent wished to publish online or in print be censored by Marketing and University Relations (MUR), a department that is notoriously and justifiably cautious about publicizing any controversial issues. Alana Crosby, the paper’s editor-in-chief, was told by one administrator that there was talk of firing her, but this now appears to be a reflection of an email sent to the school by an outside individual, not a discussion within administration.
While the Accent removed the original news article from its website as requested, it has not renounced the article; its claimed role on campus has been “the student voice since 1926,” and publishing regional news is a routine part of its work. Tensions escalated on campus, and students organized a “Rally against Administrative Censorship” for Thursday, April 13. In response to a number of students who contacted administration with their concerns about the forced removal of the article from the Accent’s website and proposed censorship by MUR, President Ken Shaw notified students of a scheduled forum on Tuesday, April 18, to voice their questions and concerns. The rally was cancelled, as it was felt the forum would prove it unnecessary.
The fight night was scheduled to take place on the evening of Saturday, April 15. Following the university statement regarding Sabbath keeping, it was split into two events, one on the 15th and one on the 16th, with the segment on the 15th beginning after sundown.
Let me clarify, as an editor of the Accent and as a student, I do not condone the event itself. It seemed to display an amount of violence and aggressively nationalistic symbolism that is out of line with the historical Adventist orientation toward these issues.
The issue at hand, however, is the concern about freedom of speech on Southern’s campus. As a graduating senior, I have not had reason to be worried for my editorial job at the Accent, as some of the other editors have. But in my four years of writing for the paper, I’ve had to be cautious about the tone of opinion and religion articles I publish, to the extent that it doesn’t feel like we have much of a place for free written discourse on campus. This is through no fault of the Accent but is only due to apparently justified concern that drama such as what occurred would come about sooner. (I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Southern and my time writing for the paper—that is to say, I’m biased.)
There is, of course, a question about what Southern, as a private institution that is also the primary funder and publisher of the Accent, has a right to censor. Private institutions are not typically subject to the boundaries imposed by the First Amendment, and the school would be fully within its rights to prohibit certain news from being published.
However, not allowing the explanatory editorial the Accent proposed to publish would mean that the Accent would be forced to violate the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: “Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content. . . . Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly."
While there is no legal problem with the school selectively prohibiting articles about topics it feels are out of alignment with its values (which could hypothetically include stalking or assaults on campus, opinion articles advocating for changes in school policy, etc.), many students feel this would be catering much more strongly to the school’s idealized reputation rather than the current students it purports to serve. According to the Student Press Law Center, “A private school that actively seeks to stifle the expression of its students is not only violating fundamental democratic concepts, it is also retarding one of the basic necessities of the learning process—the unfettered free flow of ideas. Minds need new ideas and means of expression to grow. When censored, the students of a private school receive a lesser education than their counterparts in public schools.”
Administration has reversed its decision to have MUR censor the remaining issues of the newspaper this year and has allowed the editorial to be published. But calls to fire the editor-in-chief and the decision to remove the initial news article from any online platforms loom large for students concerned about the future freedom of speech on campus. “I’m concerned that in our attempts to please our donors we will lose some of what makes Southern so valuable. . . . Censoring the student paper weakens us an institute of higher learning and as a community,” said Laura Gibbs, a senior social work major. “I love Southern. Unabashedly and unashamedly,” Gibbs added.
The initial decision to have MUR censor the paper prior to each publication indicates that some think of journalism as a subset of marketing. It is also troubling that there was more vocal concern from readers following a news article about a clearly non-school-sponsored event than there has been about articles covering stalking and assaults on campus over the past few semesters. When asked to confirm whether or not any donor funding was actually withheld over the fight night, the vice president for advancement declined to offer specific answers, instead stating: “The university encourages alumni, including donors, to converse with Southern on many subjects. We welcome hearing their success stories as well as their concerns, and we appreciate that our constituents care deeply that Southern students receive a quality education. Many donors choose to support student scholarships and campus projects based on the alignment with their own beliefs and interests.”
I won’t pretend that “objective” news is unbiased. In studying history at Southern, I’ve learned that every decision we make on which facts to include and leave out is subjective and can reflect personal or institutional opinions—not every fact can be included. I also acknowledge that the fight night news article could have been worded differently or not placed on the front page, though I happen to think that the statement in the second paragraph, “Fight Night is not affiliated with the university,” seems sufficiently worded to express that Fight Night is not affiliated with the university.
Students expected the tone of the forum hosted on April 18 to be conciliatory, perhaps apologetic for what has felt like a dramatic overreaction. Many left more upset than when they came, however, after university representatives repeated arguments about the school’s reputation being of utmost importance and wishing to please constituents. The school portrayed itself as subject to the opinions of donors, like the one who the president stated chose to withhold a planned $4 million donation after a lecture by an outside speaker in the fall semester. While I understand the school’s difficult position, myself having benefited from funding donated by graduated “constituents,” this highlights a problem that is not unique to Southern or any Adventist school: some of its biggest beneficiaries hold convictions that are not beneficial to the enrolled student population.
One student at the forum, Xavier Quiles, a senior film production major, made the point that all of administration’s concerns were practical and utilitarian, as opposed to value-driven. “You describe reputation as a value. Reputation isn’t a value. Reputation is either good or bad depending on what values you uphold in your own life and in the behavior of an institution. That’s what reputation is. This institution . . . is not upholding the freedom of expression. It’s not upholding the rights of students. It’s not upholding the rights of everyone here to listen to proper journalistic reporting of information.”
President Ken Shaw explained his thinking at another point during the forum. “It’s a fine line. . . . I don’t like the question, respectfully, between the reputation of our constituents versus our students. I value student voices. . . . I value the community and I value the conversation we’re having now.”
Quiles later responded, “May I remind you that alumni are not the ones attending this school now. Neither [are] the pastors, neither are the donors. We are. We are the ones that attend this school. We are the constituents that need your utmost attention.” Quiles’s comment was not addressed.
The question remains for Southern and other Adventist universities: When major financial supporters of an institution vocally express an opinion that is detrimental to the education of students and the opinions of less wealthy alumni, who wins? Whose voice counts?
Administration did eventually reverse its decision to have Marketing and University Relations censor the remaining issues of the newspaper this year. In my mind, this has been a victory for students and freedom of expression. I can only hope further conflicts that inevitably arise will conclude this way in the future.
Christina Cannon is a senior history major minoring in chemistry, biology, and philosophy at Southern Adventist University. She is the Opinion Editor for the Southern Accent.
Title image credit: The Southern Accent / Spectrum.
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