Southern to hold forum to address students’ concerns about perceived censorship


Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article is a managing editor and writer at the Southern Accent. She wrote this article to update readers on the controversy and has aimed to remain objective.

Southern Adventist University President Ken Shaw sent students an email on Wednesday, April 12, informing them that the university would hold a student forum at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, April 18,  in Thatcher Hall Chapel.

The forum’s purpose was to address students’ concerns about administration asking the Accent to remove from its website and social media an article about Fight Night, an off-campus boxing event organized by Southern students and not affiliated with the university.

In an email to the Accent, Ingrid Skantz, vice president for Marketing and University Relations (MUR), shared a statement on the forum from senior leaders:

“Administration asked the Southern Accent staff to remove the April 5 cover story about a community event that is not condoned by Southern Adventist University. That same day the university distributed an official statement speaking against the event. Since then, administration heard from a number of students expressing concerns regarding the decision to have the story removed. In light of this, campus leaders felt it would be worthwhile to provide Southern students with an opportunity to have a wider dialogue about the topic with administration. Student voices matter and we hope this will provide a forum for students to ask questions and have their concerns heard.”

About four hours before Shaw sent the email, information about a protest, described as a “Rally against Administrative Censorship,” began circulating on social media. According to social media posts, the protest was scheduled to occur at Wright Hall at 12 p.m. on Thursday, April 13. That was the same time and location for the university’s Giving Day Finale.

The organizers of the protest wrote in a text to the Accent that they called off the protest shortly after Shaw announced the student town hall meeting so they could “re-organize student action for a response” at the forum. The organizers wish to remain anonymous because they did not abide by the Student Handbook’s “Public Assembly and Forum” guidelines. 

“We were willing to take that risk to start a conversation with administration,” they wrote, “but once a student forum was announced, a protest was no longer necessary.”

Accent staff members were not among those who planned the protest, according to editors. 

The student organizers said they planned the protest because they were concerned about the university censoring the newspaper. They heard that administration did not initially allow the Accent to publish an editorial responding to the criticism they received for publishing the story and believed that was unfair.

“The student paper is a major voice for students on Southern’s campus, and we really do not want to lose it,” they wrote. “ … We understand that free speech in a student paper is not a right at a private university but it is something that is important to us, and something we are dedicated to protecting. We strongly believe it makes us a better school.”

The organizers confirmed that they purposefully planned the protest at the same time as the Giving Day Finale. They added that they have no reason to believe that the student forum was created as a response to the planned protest except for the timing. 

In the midst of the controversy, several former Accent editors also expressed support for the newspaper, writing letters to administration describing how the Accent prepared them for their professional careers and requesting that the newspaper be allowed to operate independently as the student’s voice as it has over decades.

On Wednesday evening, administrators met with members of the Student Media Board: Stephen Ruf, chair of the board and professor in the School of Journalism and Communication (SJC); Rachel Williams-Smith, dean of the SJC, and Alva James-Johnson, SJC professor and Accent adviser.  

Ruf said the discussion with administrators was off the record, but James-Johnson confirmed that the censorship concerns were addressed and the Accent will continue in the fall with business as usual. 

Ruf wrote in an email to the Accent that he appreciated that Shaw and several vice presidents met with the three Media Board members so each party could express their concerns.

“A constructive conversation helped clarify the path forward,” Ruf wrote. “We welcome the opportunity for students to also dialogue with administration about issues that affect SAU’s student media. Our student-generated content goes around the world and is seen by many via social media. And it can have an immediate impact.

“My hope is university leaders will continue to see value in allowing students to publish newsworthy stories and commentary relevant to the campus and community,” Ruf continued. “I also encourage student editors and producers to recognize the responsibility they share in reporting and editing stories so they are accurate, fair and reflect multiple points of view, especially the values we embrace as a Seventh-day Adventist University.”

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