Indiana students launch coalition to counter “rampant” press censorship at Christian universities

INDIANA — Cassidy Grom, a senior journalism major at Taylor University in Indiana, was always leery of her school’s editorial policy as co-editor-in-chief of the student-run paper, The Echo. “The University cannot afford for questionable or negative Echo reporting to reach a worldwide audience,” the school’s policy states

Her suspicions deepened after interning at the New York Daily News during a fall 2017 semester program. She found the city paper’s editorial freedom liberating and in stark contrast to her university’s.

After returning to her school in Upland, Indiana in January, Grom and six other Taylor University students conducted a survey to measure censorship at Christian universities. The results were so stunning, the group launched the Student Press Coalition, a group that “promotes a free press in higher education through research and advocacy on issues related to media censorship in Christian colleges and universities.” The coalition has been featured in daily roundups from Poynter and the Columbia Journalism Review.

How censor-prone are Christian universities?

For the SPC’s survey, Grom and her team reached out to 136 Christian student newspapers associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They wanted to know if Taylor University’s editorial policies were an aberration. 

“After we started hearing back from all the students at different Christian schools about how they face censorship, we realized the problem was so much bigger than our school,” Grom said. “Censorship is rampant at Christian schools.”

Out of the 49 schools that responded to the survey, almost half said they had been directly censored, and more than 75 percent said they they faced pressure not to publish an article.

Grom’s team created the Student Press Coalition after seeing the dramatic results of the survey. 

Frank LoMonte, senior legal fellow for the Student Press Law Center and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, says the coalition’s findings “completely align” with his experiences as a lawyer advocating for student press rights and as a journalism educator.

“It’s completely unsurprising that a substantial segment of [Christian] student journalists say they’ve been pressured to censor,” LoMonte said. 

“Having a paid university employee participate in the process would be like Sarah Huckabee Sanders sitting in on New York Times meetings.”

In response, Taylor University’s Director of Media Relations James R. Garringer provided a statement, hinting that prior review at the university may end. Garringer is one of the administrators who reads over The Echo’s work.

“With the advent of The Echo’s online presence in recent years, faculty in the communications department created a policy that has served as a preliminary guide for The Echo’s online publications, but that policy is under review and expected to be replaced or ended.”

Grom isn’t so hopeful. 

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Grom. “[The] administration has been saying the policy might change all semester. Having a paid university employee participate in the process would be like Sarah Huckabee Sanders sitting in on New York Times meetings.”

A culture of censorship

As part of their survey, the SPC published thirteen personal stories of censorship to their site.

SaraGrace Stefan, editor-in-chief at Eastern University’s The Waltonian, was writing an article about a resigning faculty member when the administration intervened.

“Our investigation … was impeded by many university staff members.” Stefan said to the SPC.

Jessica Mathews, editor-in-chief at The King’s College’s Empire State Tribune, said bluntly, “I have had leaders from the school step into our publication office and tell us to change or delete a story or stop pursuing it.” She says the attempted censorship came from administration officials, not her college’s journalism department. The Tribune didn’t change the story to appease administrators.

The Seattle Times and Politico have also reported on cases of censorship at Christian universities. 

In April 2017, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. stopped a news reporter from the university’s paper, Liberty Champion, from covering an event critical of Falwell.

The same month, Seattle University English professor Father David Leigh removed physical copies of the school’s paper, The Spectator. Leigh said he was “offended” with the paper’s front page photo, which was of a student drag show performer.

“As Christians, we’re taught that we need to have grace and truth,” said Grom. “A lot of the times we lean too hard on the grace. It’s hard to have hard-hitting news when you’re super worried about offending your friend or the professor that you really love.”

Grom thinks this lack of truth can affect how Christian universities are preparing their journalism majors.

“We need better journalism education,” Grom said. “It’s hard to love the free press and to have a passion for it if you don’t understand it.”

Annabelle Blair, SPC’s media outreach director, shares Grom’s conclusions. Blair participated in the same program as Grom in New York City, where she interned at the TimesLedger in Queens. 

“While in New York City, I realized there were principles of journalism that I really hadn’t understood while I was at Taylor,” Blair said. “At Taylor, I understand that journalism was trying to share the truth. I didn’t understand how important that [really] was.”

“Strong journalism illuminates the whole truth”

Grom, along with Becca Robb, a former co-editor-in-chief of The Echo, published an opinion article in the May 4 issue calling for more press freedom at Taylor University. 

“We must keep campus leadership accountable. Strong journalism illuminates the whole truth, not just the parts that make us feel comfortable,” the article states.

The Echo’s adviser, Alan Blanchard, wrote an opinion article countering Grom and Robb’s piece, which appears side-by-side in the paper’s print version. He defended the editorial policies of Taylor University. 

“The Echo’s staffers have great latitude in selecting, assigning and writing stories they believe are important to share with the Taylor community, within generally accepted journalistic best practices,” Blanchard wrote. “… as a high school or even as a university journalism student reporter, I failed to learn a key thing until much later. What I learned is reporters and even top editors of daily and weekly newspapers do not always enjoy full press freedom. When push comes to shove, the owner of the newspaper has the final say on what newspaper stories would or would not run.”

Taylor University’s prior review policy allows Blanchard to read all articles, including Grom and Robb’s, before publication. Grom said Blanchard had a week to read her and Robb’s article before writing his.

Blanchard declined an interview request for this article. 

Clarification: Jessica Mathews from The King’s College clarified that the censorship she encountered came from administration officials, not her adviser or the college’s journalism department. The Tribune didn’t change the story to appease administrators.

SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.

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