With Bryan College censorship, balancing seeking truth with minimizing harm

Events moved faster than I could write my first Freedom of the Prez post.

I’d planned to let you know SPJ is aware that the president of a small, Christian college in Tennessee ordered a student journalist not to publish a story about a former professor whom the FBI arrested over the summer in a child-sex sting.

The student editor, Alex Green, published the story on his own and distributed it on the Bryan College campus, which was courageous in my eyes. I learned about it from Jim Romenesko’s blog.

I asked Vice President of Campus Chapter Affairs Neil Ralston and President-elect Dave Cuillier to do some fact-gathering so I could decide what SPJ’s official position would be.

Meanwhile, Bryan College President Dr. Stephen Livesay issued an apology Wednesday afternoon, which you can read here.

I’m glad to see Dr. Livesay acknowledge that his action to stop the story’s publication “may have been a mistake.”

I also appreciate his openness about the administration’s thinking in stopping the story’s publication, though I disagree with it.

In a sense, this incident provides a case study in applying SPJ’s Code of Ethics, because the Code was intended to help journalists balance competing ideals as they make decisions in their reporting.

The competing ideals here:

Seek truth and report it vs minimize harm.

Alex Green, editor of the Bryan College student newspaper, the Triangle, sought out the truth behind the abrupt resignation of a respected scholar and teacher.

In his explanation about why he chose to publish his story despite Dr. Livesay’s directive, Green said he’d presumed that the professor jumped to a better job. But when the explanation he got from the school indicated the teacher left to “pursue other opportunities,” Green began trying to learn the real reason.

Green’s discovery of the professor’s arrest records in a neighboring state as well as the FBI’s press release led to the story he published and distributed on Monday.

Dr. Livesay’s apology and explanation on Wednesday shows a deep concern for the human impact of such a story (minimize harm), not just on the alleged perpetrator but on the campus community.

I admire his sensitivity and commitment to the principles under which his school operates, but I don’t agree with his news judgment.

In this case, seek truth and report it outweighs minimize harm.

 

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  • Brandon Ballenger

    Glad to see a quick response on this, Sonny. Great post.

    I’d go a step further and say that seeking and reporting the truth may ultimately minimize harm.

    I can’t and wouldn’t dare to speak specifically to the motives, actions or character of David Morgan — whom Alex Green’s story was about — beyond what’s in police reports. But we’ve seen so many other tragic stories where suppressing knowledge of sex crimes enabled future ones. Silence often creates bigger problems, not smaller.

    The president’s fear was likely short-term harm to the university’s and professor’s reputations. Those are not trivial concerns, but in my view are far outweighed by the long-term well-being of students at Bryan College and minors there and elsewhere. So there is a weighing of the two principles there, but in looking at the big picture I find they work in tandem.

    The key is judiciously balancing what’s known and unknown against the public’s right to know — and given that the police and FBI had already stepped in here, I think Alex Green made the right call in the face of adversity. Kudos to him.

  • Andy Schotz

    What’s missing from the president’s response is how the school will treat journalists and the school newspaper in the future. I’d like to hear a statement supporting journalistic freedom.

  • Sonny Albarado, 2012-13 SPJ President

    Andy, I agree the president didn’t exactly express support for journalistic independence. I’m still following this and may say something more about it.

  • Sonny Albarado, 2012-13 SPJ President

    Brandon, No doubt – Alex Green made the right call.

  • mary ann carpenter

    A Past Children’s Director Reviews
    Bryan College’s Response to
    Dr. Morgan’s Arrest and Resignation.

    1. The FBI caught Dr. Morgan in a child protection task force sting. In order to lawfully engage a target, the FBI must have reason to believe that a target has an established proclivity to the offense; otherwise the offender has a legal defense of “entrapment.” In other words, the FBI cannot lure otherwise law abiding people into crimes, without first having a reasonable belief, based on evidence, that they are likely to commit the crime. Indeed, the FBI press release reported that Dr. Morgan’s online conduct had brought him to the attention of the task force. Therefore, Dr. Morgan’s actions that led to his arrest were probably not his first foray into inappropriate sexual actions with minors.
    a. Had Bryan College Trustees and Administration previously adopted a sound written policy to address this kind of situation? Obviously not.
    b. Did the Administration respond appropriately to the factual context: an arrest by a child protection task force sting? No.
    c. Did the Administration seek legal counsel, who could explain Dr. Morgan’s arrest in context? It doesn’t seem likely.
    d. If the Administration had understood the context of the child protection task force sting and the legal defense of “entrapment,” would they have viewed Dr. Morgan’s protestations of repentance differently? Perhaps.
    2. Bryan College Administration did not discharge Dr. Morgan or suspend him pending the outcome of the criminal charges. Rather, the Administration allowed Dr. Morgan to resign. Furthermore, the College allowed him to remain employed for FOUR WEEKS after the Administration knew of the serious criminal charges. They learned of the charges July 3, but his resignation was effective July 31. This continuation of employment for four weeks falsely implies that no misconduct led to his resignation.
    3. In an email to the Triangle (student newspaper), the College Administration stated that Dr. Morgan resigned “to pursue other opportunities.”
    a. There were no “other opportunities.” The Administration lied to the student newspaper.
    b. The email also included a statement attributed to Dr. Morgan giving glowing praise to the College for the wonderful years he had spent there, the wonderful relationships he had made, etc., confirming the lie that no misconduct had led to Dr. Morgan’s resignation.
    4. The College says it was attempting to implement Christian principles and its motto: “Christ above all.”
    a. Did the Administration’s lying and deception fulfill Bryan College’s motto? It would seem not.
    b. Was Bryan College’s conduct consistent with the Christian teaching of loving one’s neighbor, or did the Administration focus only on the well-being of the Kingdom within the narrow confines of its campus?
    c. Just as the Catholic Church transferred pedophile priests to new a parish to prey on a new flock of unsuspecting children, Bryan College sent out a sexual predator without warning, so that the next college, high school, or church youth group in which he landed would be just as unsuspecting as they were when they hired him.
    d. Aren’t the shepherds all a called to protect the lambs from the wolf?
    5. So now, what will the Board of Trustees do?
    Mary Ann Carpenter

  • Pingback: My paper, a disgraced professor and my college, a year later | Daniel Jackson


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