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Journalism That Dare Not Speak Its Name

April 11, 2006

North Central University removed a husband and wife from their editorial posts at a student newspaper after they refused to allow administrators to vet the paper before publication.

Hope and Chuck Bahr, students at North Central, a Pentecostal institution in Minneapolis, were dismissed as editors Thursday after the seven-member senior editorial staff of The Northern Light voted unanimously to stop working on the newspaper -- rather than give administrators pre-publication editorial power.

Hope Bahr was the editor-in-chief of the paper, which generally publishes every other week, and Chuck Bahr was the news editor.

Susan Detlefsen, a North Central spokeswoman, said that the decision to require pre-publication review was the result of “an accumulation of events.”

Gordon Anderson, president of the university, cited two main problems with The Light’s coverage. The first, he said, arose when Chuck Bahr chose to write a news article about the Soulforce Equality Ride, a 30-member tour of 19 Christian and military campuses that have anti-gay policies.

The riders, all between the ages of 18-26 and identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, plan to stop at North Central on April 17. One of the riders says he was expelled from North Central because he is gay. The North Central administration, which views the campus visits as publicity stunts, told the riders that they would not be allowed to conduct their activities on campus grounds. North Central says it takes a Biblical view of homosexuality, but, according to a university statement, “does not summarily expel students who reveal that they have same sex attraction. Also, we do not tolerate ‘gay-bashing.’”

The ride has been a point of hot debate at many of the institutions it has visited, and Bahr felt it worthy of an article. Because of privacy considerations, university officials could not comment specifically on the student who says he was expelled, but Anderson said that Chuck Bahr and the student, David Coleman, are friends. Anderson added that, because Chuck Bahr is married to the editor-in-chief, there was little chance there would be editorial oversight of the article. “It’s an obvious conflict of interest,” Anderson said.

When Bahr wrote about Equality Ride in January, university officials literally stopped the presses. “The administration said they weren’t ready to make a statement,” Hope Bahr said, “so we didn’t think it was fair that we should hold our story because they weren’t ready.” University officials called the printing press and halted publication.

After that, Chuck Bahr “gave in,” he said, and allowed Detlefsen to read his article about the Equality Ride for the February 28 issue before it went to press. Detlefsen said that the intent of “proofreading” is to ensure “a balanced perspective.” Bahr, who said that Coleman is a friend, said he purposely did not use Coleman as a source. Detlefsen reviewed Bahr’s article, deemed it fair, and did not make any changes to the piece, in which both she and a main Equality Ride organizer are quoted extensively.

In the same issue, the editorial board, made up of the Bahrs and three other editors, wrote an editorial admonishing the administration for not showing “Christ-like love” by letting the riders on campus to converse with students.

To cap off the trio of articles that Anderson said has left his desk full of unhappy letters from donors and “the highest officials in our movement,” the Light ran a student opinion article that questioned the Pentecostal doctrine of “speaking in tongues.”

Anderson called the article a “pot shot” and “a setback in [North Central’s] public image” could devastate fund raising.

Anderson pointed out that, because the university owns the newspaper and both are private entitites is privately owned, there is no First Amendment question in this case. The Bahrs admit that the university is on firm legal ground, but Hope Bahr said that, “we believe under Biblical principles we are allowed to question their decisions.” Student reaction, she added, has largely been apathetic. Most students “believe that the administration are our spiritual leaders and we should listen to them.”

When asked whether a solution short of removal was attempted to alleviate conflict of interest concerns, Anderson said that “they never volunteered that.”

Rather than a legal issue, the question, to Anderson and the Bahrs is what role the student newspaper should play. North Central policy says that “the opinion section is a venue where students should be free to express their opinions on matters that concern them. This includes columns or commentaries that advocate change in university policy or practice.”

Anderson said that, as members of a private institutional community, the paper has an obligation to act in the interest of the community. He said that mainstream newspapers would not publish articles criticizing the company that owns them. Anderson said that the role of the paper came down to a philosophical debate with students, and “in a philosophical debate with students,” he said, “you can get a lot of attitude.” He added that to be a true open forum, the paper should run opposing opinion articles in the same issue, like USA Today, rather than printing one, and allowing a response three weeks down the line.

Bahr’s coverage can still be found online, at a site that is not an official domain of North Central University. Bahr said he plans to cover the Equality Ride visit for the site.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that, even without grounds for a legal complaint, the administration’s behavior is “reprehensible for an institution of higher education. If school officials are looking to prepare journalists for life in China, this is a great way to run a student newspaper.”

 

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