Commentary Religion

We Must Not Excuse Religious Universities’ Censorship of Student Speech

Dianna Anderson

Under a section governing relationships on campus—a section common to private Christian liberal arts institutions—LeTourneau University’s 2014-2015 handbook bans “public advocacy for the position that sex outside of a biblically-defined marriage is morally acceptable.”

LeTourneau University, a small Christian college in Longview, Texas, has recently come under fire from alumni and current students for a change in its handbook. Under a section governing relationships on campus—a section common to private Christian liberal arts institutions—LeTourneau’s 2014-2015 handbook bans “public advocacy for the position that sex outside of a biblically-defined marriage is morally acceptable.”

LeTourneau spokespeople, through a statement issued by the university, insist that these policies are consistent with the institution’s message and similar policies have been in place for years. But according to alumni of the university, the language banning “public advocacy” is new. Indeed, the 2011-2012 handbook, provided to Rewire by an alumnus of the university, lacks that specific language. This change surrounding political opinion is a cause for concern amongst numerous alumni, many of whom are circulating petitions online asking for the language to be removed. Even so, the few local media outlets covering the issue have failed to interrogate it as a free speech issue, in turn perpetuating the idea that all Christian university students—and, by extension, all Christians—are incapable of being involved with issues in an intellectually sincere manner.

The quelling of LGBTQ advocacy is both a failure to be honest as an academic institution and a failure to engage with the tension of what it means to be distinctly Christian in an often secular world. These new rules about student speech could create an environment where pupils cannot openly and honestly take part in the cultural issues, for fear that even having a discussion could be perceived as “public advocacy.” This is a signal of religious separatism, a desire to isolate students from issues that will and are affecting their friends, their family, and themselves. Such isolation is never good for a university—doubly so for one that aims to engender a Christian engagement with the world as a whole.

The university’s response to the initial report, broken by OutSports blogger Cyd Ziegler, was to put forth a statement commenting that Ziegler never contacted the university for comment. “Our overall policy has always reflected who we are as a private Christian university,” said a spokesperson. “That’s not new.”

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Contributing to the confusion, the student-athlete handbook also forbids “same-sex dating behaviors.” Local news organizations’ reports on the issue have concentrated on that rule, repeating the university’s statements; only one has mentioned that the issue is also one of free speech. As a result, the confusion around whether or not the problem is the same-sex dating restriction or the public advocacy one is allowed to reign. This confusion has allowed the university to respond solely to its perspective of events, rather than to the actual controversy of curbing the expression of thought on campus. While there are certainly problems with banning same-sex dating, the effective restriction of any kind of discussions surrounding LGBTQ advocacy means that ideas themselves are being quashed; this is a policy that works in opposition to any university’s role as a place of learning.

Indeed, Dr. Jonathan Wilson, a 2006 alumnus of the university, told Rewire via email that LeTourneau’s student body is fairly politically diverse, despite being a Christian college in Texas. “It’s safe to say there was more diversity of opinion on campus” than in the faculty, Wilson says, “on just about every issue. … LeTourneau wasn’t really a school that bred culture warriors.” At the time of Wilson’s matriculation, it was a campus that leaned conservative, as one would expect, but where students didn’t really fear punishment from the administration for expressing different ideas or opinions.

That appears to have begun changing. Jared Wheeler is also a 2006 graduate of LeTourneau. Wheeler pins the context for LeTourneau’s new policy on an administration shift the campus experienced shortly after his graduation. The longtime president of the university, Alvin “Bud” Austin, left and a newer president, Dale Lunsford, was installed. Lunsford, according to Wheeler, oversaw a complete change in the Student Affairs department, with most of the leadership in that department leaving the university. It is from this office that the new rules governing student speech have come. (LeTourneau administrators did not respond to requests for comment.)

Except at deeply fundamentalist institutions like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian, it is incredibly rare for a student to face punishment for speaking out on political issues. Faculty and the student body often function in two very different spheres when it comes to what rights they have to speak on controversial issues, with faculty more frequently being censured by administration. LeTourneau seems to have combined those two spheres with this new rule about student speech. In doing so, the university signals that it would rather not allow debate about very real and pressing topics.

Even more troubling is that the university seems, based on other rules about student conduct, to see restrictions on advocacy for the LGBTQ community as part and parcel with LGBTQ “behaviors.” The advocacy is thus tied into the perception of LGBTQ individuals as defined solely by behaviors, including speech, flattening the image of LGBTQ people as fully human beings loved and created by God. Banning public advocacy in the same breath as banning “same-sex dating behaviors” allows the university to conflate the discussion, as its official statements on the matter have shown. It allows the university to maintain that the rules have always been this way while ignoring that the restriction on speech is, in fact, new.

Christian universities typically have more leeway when it comes to laws concerning speech and activity of the students on campus. As religious nonprofits, these universities can legally make almost any rule they wish for their students to follow, so long as they can provide a religious basis for such a rule. This is how universities across the United States get away with making their students sign contracts pledging not to drink alcohol or to go to concerts or watch R-rated movies. And when media outlets cover the controversies facing these local campuses, it never seems to be out of a desire to explain why such universities have these rules, but merely to accept them as stated fact. National publications, when they report on the controversy, do little to challenge the idea that students make a choice to attend such colleges and therefore should comply with the rules—even if the rules change midway through your time at the college.

But this narrative of choice, accepted and perpetuated by national and local media, creates what Wheeler calls an “assumption of shared belief.” That is, because Christian universities have a religious identity in addition to an academic one, these universities and the greater public tend to assume their student body is on the same page as the administration and the donors. Students, by choosing to attend these schools, must therefore approve of the rules. Such assumptions ignore the true nature of many students’ college decisions. Some have religious parents who say it’s that school or nothing; some choose a school because of a certain program, not because of religious identity; some have any number of other reasons. During my time at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, I encountered students of all religious beliefs and traditions, despite the university’s reputation as a conservative Baptist school.

Still, many Christian universities, including LeTourneau, often surmise that students who choose to go there share at least in part the religious identity of the school—an assumption that leads to confusion when policies like this are implemented. Wheeler points to these fallacies as a source for the administration’s lackluster response to the controversy: “They seem a bit confused, like they don’t really understand where the objections are coming from, or why anyone would find it surprising that they’ve clarified policies that are in keeping with beliefs they’ve held all along,” he told Rewire.

As evidenced by the lack of national pushback, schools that function on this shared belief can erase portions of their student body from on-campus discussion without much outside repercussion. By presuming that all students share the same kind of beliefs, the university can get away with quashing dialogue that challenges those tenets.

In LeTourneau’s case, the disconnect between actual and perceived student opinions resulted in a rule that curbs necessary open and honest debate about the roles that LGBTQ people play in the life of the church. Students trying to sort through their identities will likely find themselves without a safe place to explore that, as the college counseling center has signaled itself as untrustworthy following these policies, no matter what the administration has claimed in media responses. It forces the discussion underground, instilling fear and darkness where there should be grace and light.

That kind of response is the mark of a university failing to engage with its academic mission in an intellectually honest manner. And this response creates a poor example for other Christian and parochial schools about how to maintain a distinctly Christian identity—one that encourages discussion of theological positions—in the midst of an ongoing civil rights battle that demands accountability and integrity.

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