Christian college implements 48-hour prior review policy for student newspaper after gay marriage ruling

TENNESSEE — It’s been three years since Bryan College administrators censored a student newspaper story involving a professor arrested on child molestation charges, but now the private Christian school has made headlines again for a new 48-hour prior review policy to limit coverage of its opposition to same-sex marriage.

New policies in the college’s faculty guide — drafted behind closed doors — restrict how faculty members can gather and hold meetings, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.

The new guidelines also tighten administrators’ already-firm grip on the Triangle, Bryan’s student newspaper — instead of requiring the approval of only the faculty adviser, articles must now be approved 48 hours prior to publication by the Communication, Culture and Media department chair, who “must have prior review and have the ability to direct, countermand, change the specific products during the process of publication while also, in his or her ability, seek to kindly support and encourage all parties involved.”

“I feel like the goal of the policy is for the administration to assert more control over what we publish,” said Ashley Coker, editor-in-chief of the Triangle. “The changes itself I’m unhappy with, but I’m more unhappy with how the changes were made.”

Vice President of Academics Kevin Clauson told the Times Free Press that the prior review policy was ramped up in response to the Supreme Court’s June ruling legalizing same-sex marriage because leaders did not want to publicize the school’s firm stance against it. (Clauson did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment as of Thursday.)

Coker said she had already felt stifled by prior review, but the policy changes intensify the chilling effect.

“I feel less confident now, but I’ve always been wary of publishing something [controversial],” she said.

The policy changes also included a measure to delete old articles after six months, in order to “preserve the timeliness” of the newspaper. This measure was quickly scrapped after administrators received complaints.

Some professors have questioned if the policy changes are a response to the faculty’s vote of no confidence in the college’s president, Stephen Livesay, in 2014. But administrators told the Times Free Press that the policies do not hinder free speech and actually grant more legitimacy to faculty meetings. After receiving complaints, leaders softened the language of the clause requiring unanimous agreement of the Academic Council in order to hold a faculty meeting; now, only three-fourths of the council must agree to hold one.

In 2012, then-editor-in-chief Alex Green was told by Bryan administrators that he could not publish a story about an assistant professor who had resigned while facing child molestation charges. Green published the article — and a column explaining the censorship — independently of the Triangle. He said he was aware he might be disciplined for distributing the articles, but according to USA Today, he never was and the college’s president later apologized for censoring the article. Green won the 2013 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon.

Because it’s a private school, Bryan doesn’t guarantee the same First Amendment protection as public universities, but student journalists still have some avenues for fighting censorship. The Student Press Law Center’s legal guide for student press at private schools outlines several steps journalists can take, including publicizing the censorship, becoming financially independent and citing free-expression protections in state constitutions.

There is also a free-expression protection bundled into federal higher-education law — known as “sense of Congress” — that states that “no student attending an institution of higher education on a full- or part-time basis should, on the basis of participation in protected speech or protected association,” be punished for engaging in activities that would be protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments at a public school.

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at 202-974-6317 or by email.