Censorship at Christian Colleges

Want to get fired? Try this: Run a controversial story in a newspaper at an evangelical college. This week, Liberty University’s Erin Covey complains that her reporting is being blocked. She’s not the first student reporter to have this experience. On the contrary, student editors have always worked under constant threat.

At issue today is an anti-Trump/anti-Falwell revival going on near Liberty University. Shane Claiborne and his progressive evangelical allies are hosting a Red Letter Revival service, challenging Liberty’s president to join them or change his “toxic” Trump-loving ways.

When student reporter Erin Covey shared her coverage of the revival with Liberty’s leaders, she was told to squelch the story. As she tells it, Liberty’s administration told her,

No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.

Covey plaintively wondered,

We often wonder: Do other private schools deal with this? What are the levels of freedom that other school papers have? Do we have the same freedoms — is this common?

When it comes to school newspapers—including student newspapers–censorship and content control have been universal practices in the history of evangelical higher education. As I describe in my recent book, this has been true at all evangelical schools, no matter how liberal or how conservative.

Earnestine Ritter

How to get fired at Biola, c. 1957.

Why? Let me share one example from Biola that exemplifies this tradition. In 1957, editor Lloyd Hamill took a strong anti-segregation position. He excoriated white evangelicals who opposed racial integration. As he put it,

No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Biola, Hamill wrote, didn’t only endorse integration. It practiced it, employing an African American journalist on staff. A deluge of letters flooded Biola. More than 90% of them attacked Hamill’s position, though a few supported him. What did Biola’s administration do? As Biola’s president explained privately to Billy Graham. Hamill was sacked immediately. Biola did not want to endorse

the very foolish letters he wrote and statements which he made.

Granted, the situation is somewhat different. Hamill worked at the college’s magazine, not a student publication. But I think the rule still holds.

Why do evangelical colleges censor their publications so rigorously? Why can’t Erin Covey cover an anti-Falwell revival?

It’s not an accident and it’s not only Liberty. All evangelical colleges live under constant scrutiny. The evangelical public is always wondering if school X or Y has gone soft. The publications coming out of schools—including student newspapers—have always received endless scrutiny from interested members of the evangelical public.

Whatever appears in a student newspaper is often taken to represent more than one student’s opinion. It is taken, at heart, to represent the current moral climate of the school. For students like Erin Covey and editors like Lloyd Hamill, the result is clear: Don’t rock the boat.

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