Cedarville Sunset. Photo courtesy Jeremy Mikkola via Flickr Creative Commons.

Cedarville University shuts down dissenting student newspaper

Cedarville Sunset. Photo courtesy Jeremy Mikkola via Flickr Creative Commons.

Cedarville Sunset. Photo courtesy Jeremy Mikkola via Flickr Creative Commons.

“It's pretty sad that a place that’s certain they have absolute truth is simultaneously so afraid of dissenting opinions,” said Zach Schneider, a senior at Cedarville University in what appears to be the latest step in a steady march toward an increasingly conservative agenda at the Christian college in Ohio.

Cedarville has made news over the past year for what has been referred to as a Southern Baptist takeover. Bible classes taught by women, for example, are now restricted to female students only, in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:12, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man."

Schneider, who is the editor of Cedarville's independent student newspaper, The Ventriloquist, said that Cedarville president Thomas White and vice president of student life Jonathan Wood "forcefully shut down" the distribution of the paper on Wednesday morning.

Wood approached Schneider as he was distributing papers, and said "you don't have permission to do this," Schneider said. He then physically pulled the papers from Schneider's hands. The school president also approached another student, who was also distributing papers, and did the same thing.

"I didn't want to get into a tug of war," Schneider said. He asked if he could have the papers back. White "stuttered for 10 seconds and said, 'They're being confiscated.'" White refused to return the papers, citing the necessity for prior permission, a requirement that is not found in the student handbook and was never stipulated for the distribution of The Ventriloquist's 12 previous issues.

I contacted the school's PR department for comment, and have gotten no response.

Last year, the New York Times noted that the resignations of William Brown, the former president, and Carl Ruby, vice president of student life were "widely viewed as strengthening the hands of the most conservative trustees, fearful of a more open Cedarville."

Students have been struggling for a 'more open Cedarville' for longer than that, and The Ventriloquist has been an important part of that struggle: it was founded in 2010 as a response to censorship of the official Cedarville paper, Cedars, by university public relations staff.

The independent student paper, which is published with support by Generation Progress, a division of the nonpartisan research and educational institute Center for American Progress, has not always been well-received among Cedarville students. However, the issue prior to this one, Issue 12 (February 2014), "was quite popular -- but not with the administration,” said Schneider, who speculated that one particular essay may have catalyzed White's and Wood's confiscation of Issue 13.

Issue 12 of The Ventriloquist featured  a first person essay by Avery Redic, a student who was active in student government and music ministry, and who also worked as a campus tour guide for university admissions. When administrators -- Redic names Wood specifically -- discovered that he was gay, they dismissed him from his leadership roles, although he had not broken any of the college's rules and had remained celibate.

“With the Avery article there was less of the usual quick instinct [on the part of students] to defend the university…it's on the record; verifiable. You either have to believe it or say he’s making it up."

Comments on the online version were largely supportive of Redic.

Issue 12 also featured an anonymous article with the subtitle: "I’m Gay. Why I must live in fear at Cedarville." All the articles in the papers' first two issues (and many others) were published anonymously; much of the Ventriloquist's reporting has been off-the-record out of necessity.

One student invited to comment on the situation declined to do so unless her comments would be "completely anonymous."

“The university wanted the fundamentalist takeover but they didn’t necessarily want to get smeared in the press," Schneider said, alluding to coercive silencing tactics employed by university administration. An additional source confirmed that multiple members of faculty and staff have been silenced by non-disclosure agreements.

Other students, such as Jasper White, commented via Facebook in favor of the move to shut down the Ventriloquist. "Amen! Go Dr. White," he wrote. In response to other students and alum who questioned him, Jasper White wrote:

"It doesn't matter who is in charge, God's will is going to be accomplished no matter what; and obviously His will does not involve 'The Ventriloquist' at this point in time."

Sarah Jones, an alumna of Cedarville who filed a Title IX complaint against the university in 2013 and now identifies as atheist, has published articles in The Ventriloquist as an alumna.

“What they’re doing is very important," she said Thursday morning. "They’re amplifying personal experiences that the administration would like to silence.”

In a farewell essay -- the confiscated issue is Schneider's last as editor -- Schneider wrote, "the goal of The Ventriloquist, put simply, is to counter ideological fascism." But no student successor is apparent at this point. The future of the paper is, he said, "up in the air for now."

Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the university's media policy prohibits students and faculty from speaking to the press without first speaking to PR. The policy applies to staff only.