The laws of the land are enshrined in statute books and court decisions. They are usually transparent, and their dramas are acted out in public forums such as the courts.
But the rules are somewhat different at a 1,250-student Christian liberal arts school named Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn. Students there strive for a singular goal. They “put Christ above all.”
This story is about alternate realities, and what happens when the laws of the land collide with the Christian imperatives of a school like Bryan.
On June 24, David Morgan, a professor of Biblical studies at Bryan, was picked up in nearby Catoosa County, Ga., in an apparent FBI sting. The feds claimed they caught Morgan trying to meet up with a minor child at a gas station. They booked him for attempted aggravated child molestation and child sexual exploitation, and then freed him on a $30,000 bond, as part of a “safe child” task force operation.
Professor Morgan, at Bryan for two years, decided to resign July 3. Bryan’s president, Dr. Stephen Livesay, felt Morgan had done nothing that was yet proven, that none of it involved any of his college duties, and decided to act mercifully.
The school’s newspaper, the Bryan College Triangle, is edited by fifth-year senior Alex Green. He’d heard rumors that Morgan had quit “to pursue other opportunities” and became curious.
Researching, Green discovered the public records laying out the three-month-old arrest. But Dr. Livesay was bothered. Morgan was still legally innocent. Livesay interpreted the “Christ above all” philosophy as a command to do what was right, deemed the story set to run Sept. 21 “inappropriate,” and killed it.
But editor Green ran the story anyway. He distributed fliers primarily at Bryan’s administration building, library, and student center. Asked later what he hoped to accomplish, he reasoned: I’m a journalist. It’s my job.
Accompanying the story Green asserted that what Bryan had begun was a trip down the same road that claimed so many victims at Penn State, he wrote. “Had one individual in the Penn State program stepped up and revealed the truth about the actions of Jerry Sandusky, there would have been no great fallout 14 years later,” he added. “(Coach) Joe Paterno could have died a hero. Instead, he died a goat. Penn State could have been praised.”
The nearby Chattanooga Times Free Press would publish the story in a few days. Green could have let its story appear and then report reactions from Bryan. At Penn State, there were no initial charges filed, and thus no public record.
The news arrived quickly at the desk of Jim Romenesko, a writer whose blog is considered a must-read by many journalists. After posting the report Sept. 25, he received an unusual request from Alex Green, the original reporter. Could Romenesko take down his original post, which came from a tip? Green was concerned with how it might reflect on Bryan.
Romenesko replied the he doesn’t “unpublish” items. But he is an ex-journalist and often contacts sources himself. He reached an adviser at Livesay’s office, and asked whether Green had come under any pressure to contact him. The adviser replied, “no comment,” prompting Romenesko to note, “OK, that answers the question, I thought.” He’d heard that Green might have been “guilted” into making the call.
The competing, realities appeared soon enough in reader responses to the Romenesko report and others.
When nasty rumors spread their blemish across placid corners such as Bryan’s campus, the public may pin responsibility on the alleged wrongdoers for starting the proceedings. Bryan’s backers are as likely to blame the messengers.
One Bryan sympathizer asserted it was “not very Christ-like” and “rude” for Green, the student editor, go behind the president’s back and publish. But another insisted that Bryan takes stands on “human/trafficking/injustice issues,” and shouldn’t have tried to cover up the Morgan story. Still another reply suggested a duty to warn students.
Livesay later issued a mini-apology. Upon reconsideration, he reflected, he may have made a mistake in his directive spiking the story. “Our intent was to look at the situation as Christians and do what was right,” he noted.
In the world outside Bryan, it’s standard for reports of criminal proceedings to be public. The Constitution’s framers worried about what would happen if justice were dispensed privately. They felt the public system would “keep ‘em honest.”
Many colleges directly fund their own news organizations. At Bryan, working at the paper is course work and granted credit. The schools then have the upper hand. Stories disappear by fiat, and advisors are sometimes fired. But at other schools, journals were set up by students to be independently funded by advertiser dollars. Such papers sidestep administration control, though not necessarily freeing themselves from embarrassment and ridicule.
Alex Green is still editor of the Triangle at Bryan. Contrary to rumors, he wasn’t forced to publish an “approved” apology or even step down. One reader, a personal finance columnist, was baffled: “Not sure how you put Christ above truth — don’t they kinda go together?”
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.