When Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Exist: In Memory of the Dante Papers

Before I left the Independent Fundamental Baptist cult, I went through a phase of trying to “fix” fundamentalism. It was a time when I could recognize the discrepancies, cognitive dissonance, and abuse, but I wasn’t quite ready to recognize the cult as a whole. I was a student at Bob Jones University, three years into my degree, when I got involved with a small group of students who were writing newsletters under the name of Dante and distributing them anonymously throughout the campus. We weren’t ashamed of what we were doing, and we believed we had every right to write those papers. But we also knew that if the administration found out, we’d be in pretty severe trouble.

“The Voice of Truth” had three good runs. Then one of the group members got caught and kicked out. He refused to turn in the rest of us, so we were able to return to the university if we chose to. I was torn. A year away from graduation—practically speaking, I could have just kept my head down, gotten my degree, and gotten out. It seemed like the smarter move at the time . . . before I found out that the degree was bogus and worth about as much as a non-degree anyway.

But I couldn’t overlook the complete disregard for freedom of speech. How could a school that practically worshipped the Constitution as inspired by God violate other people’s Constitutional rights so blatantly? I wrestled up until a couple weeks before I was supposed to return. As I began trying to pack, I realized that I wasn’t going to finish packing. I simply couldn’t go back and be silent about what had happened. I withdrew from the school, explaining my protest to the admissions office.

I don’t think any of the group actually returned that semester, and the school had a quiet fall. When spring came around, two of us collaborated one last paper to send out to let the students know what had happened.

I’ve been out of the IFB for several years now, and I still value freedom of speech as the cornerstone of freedom. Wherever there is power, I suppose people will always have to fight to protect their freedoms, but lately with Obama’s expansion on the Patriot Act (as if it weren’t bad enough initially) and the recent revelations we’ve seen regarding privacy right violations, the punishment of whistle blowers, and the silencing of protesters, it seems an especially timely year to remember what freedom of speech means to me—what I sacrificed for it, what it was like without it.

With Banned Book Week starting Sunday, I wanted to post the last of the Dante papers that ever went out. It’s a bit cheesy in some places and still carries cultic influences in others, but for the most part, the core of the message is one that I think is vitally important even outside of the IFB. Don’t ever take freedom for granted. Guard and protect it. Treasure it. Use it.

Voice Of Truth Issue 4

Last year, a student [editor’s note: we let the university think it was a single student to protect the others involved] began writing anonymous papers in an effort to spur the students and administration to think critically. He was not attacking the school, although some of the people who read the papers felt the need to defend themselves. He was not, as some have asserted, complaining or trying to gather a following and incite rebellion like Absolom, or he wouldn’t have written anonymously. He wanted to help and improve the school, not tear it down. For that, he was “denied re-enrollment,” which is the same treatment BJU gives those who engage in extra-marital sex during the summer.

First of all, there was nothing wrong in what he did. The administration, when pressed for an answer, admitted that he broke no rule in the handbook. To be quite honest, we all get stuck in our ways, and from time to time, we need someone to challenge our beliefs. Why? If our beliefs cannot stand up on their own merit, we must re-evaluate what we believe. Questioning a belief is not wrong, even if the belief itself is correct. Unfortunately, in fundamental circles, the very idea of questioning what you’ve been taught is not permitted and asking “why?” often brings both rejection and accusations of heresy. Have we forgotten who our God is? God can handle our questions. He is not afraid to let His people question Him. Many in the Bible have done so, including Job, David, Elijah, Noah, and Moses. In fact, questioning what you believe can be very good because it makes you stronger. Each of us will have to defend himself at some point. We should be sure of what we believe so that we can be ready to give an answer to any man who asks.

Secondly, the school was very wrong in expelling the writer. Such an act was cowardly and tyrannical. By kicking him out, the school blatantly infringed upon his constitutional rights. He broke no rule; he broke no law; he told no lie. He merely expressed his opinion in writing, protected by the First Amendment rights of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. In the words of Harry S. Truman, “We punish men for crimes they commit, but never for the opinions [that] they have.” The previous writer committed no crime. What made the administration so angry and so defensive? Was it that he expressed his opinion, because he expressed it in writing, or because he expressed a differing opinion from the one held by the school? The freedom to express what we believe without punishment or suppression is one of the fundamental freedoms our founding fathers fought so hard to win for us.

Along with that freedom comes the freedom to read and either accept or reject what we read, which the school effectively took away from the students in expelling Dante. No one forced those who disagreed with him to read his paper. Those who read and agreed did so of their own volition. Another President, John F. Kennedy, said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” What is the school so afraid of? Again, if their beliefs are true, their beliefs should be able to stand the test of one lone voice crying out. And whether or not the school’s beliefs are true, the students have a right to hear both sides and choose for themselves what they believe. BJU stole those rights away by suppressing free speech.

The original writer of The Voice of Truth was not trying to war against BJU. The administration turned it into a war. Obviously, the school, its administration, and its students are not perfect. However, many choose to accept BJU’s rules and regulations without question or thought. So have generations before us. But looking at the history of the school reminds us that BJU has been very wrong before. Most students know that BJU lost its tax-exempt status at some point. Few, however, know why. The school used to prohibit inter-racial dating and inter-racial marriage. In fact, any student who openly disagreed with the school’s stance could be kicked out. Sound somewhat familiar? Of course, such a racist policy could not survive. Dr. Bob III rescinded and apologized for that policy in 2000 on national television. However, I wonder how many who were kicked out for that reason got even so much as an apology letter?

Could it be that just as BJU was wrong with its unconstitutionally racist rules, BJU is just as wrong with its unconstitutionally suppressive rules? Although it’s obvious that, biblically and constitutionally, it was wrong for the school to kick the writer out and to try to suppress the paper, few would say anything. All of you, students and faculty, have a choice. Will we allow this suppression? I still strongly believe that BobJonesUniversity is a good school with many merits and the potential to be a great and shining light for Christ. However, the school’s attitude of stubbornness and tyranny often covers this light in the bushes.

 

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3 thoughts on “When Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Exist: In Memory of the Dante Papers

  1. adauce says:

    I started reading you recently….I was unaware you were a student at BJU until today! Your writing reminds me of my own experiences with TTU. I didn’t attend the university but I did attend the high school, which was located on the college campus. I admire your honesty and ability to recognize places like that for what they are: cults. Like you, I always questioned everything….still do! You make a very good point: if a belief or opinion doesn’t pass the test of ‘why’ and discourages critical thinking and inquiry, there’s a problem!

    • My parents went to Tennessee Temple. But they thought it was too liberal when I was getting ready to choose a college because they’d added a psych department. Ironically I have my undergrad in that evil field now and will be going for my masters in the next year. 😛

  2. […] last year at BJU, as I’ve described here, I was beginning to dip my toes into activism, fighting a corrupt system, standing up for […]

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