Baptists are known throughout American history for their commitment to the freedom of expression. Baptists have a long history of advocating for free speech, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression. This tradition of free expression is in our blood. Why, then, is this commitment not readily present on Baptist university campuses today?
In his book, Undomesticated Dissent, Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology
and Baptist studies and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, outlines the history of persecution faced by English Protestants, largely due to the lack of recognized rights to religious freedoms. If you were to ask Freeman, or his North Carolina Baptist colleagues Glenn Jonas (professor of religion and associate dean at Campbell University), and Bill Leonard (retired dean and church history professor at Wake Forest’s School of Divinity), it is nearly certain that both would be able to provide a detailed history of persecution that Baptists have faced in spaces that do not protect the natural right of free expression.
Indeed, anyone who has taken a church history class at any Baptist university has
most likely been given a key insight into the importance of free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. Still today, in nations without these rights, Baptists continue to find themselves the victims of persecution.
Yet, when someone refers to “a Baptist university,” freedom of expression is not a topic that comes most immediately to mind. Having led several groups as an undergraduate student, I am familiar with the hoops one has to jump through in order to host a meeting, reserve a room, put up a flyer, invite a speaker, set up a table, or even just pass out information (be it Bibles, voter registration information or copies of the U.S. Constitution) on most Baptist campuses. It would seem that such regulation, to the point of sacrificing ease of transferring even Biblical information, betrays a stronger desire to control information generally.
While some policies and guidelines are reasonable and even necessary, it is a concern
that support for free speech and freedom of expression is not the standard on many
FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan
educational foundation based in Philadelphia, PA that advocates for First Amendment
and due process rights on college campuses. This highly respected, free speech
organization releases an annual “spotlight” report that rates speech policies at 400 of
the nation’s top colleges and universities. It uses a 3-teired system:
“Green-light” universities have no problematic policies and guarantee First
Amendment protections to students and faculty.
“Yellow-light” schools have some problematic policies but generally guarantee a
number of First Amendment protections.
A “red-light” rating is given when a school has one or more policies that
contradicts its own promises of freedom of speech.
According to FIRE, a problematic policy is one that violates a school’s commitment to
free expression by prohibiting speech that, beyond the bounds of campus, is protected
by the First Amendment and allowed within society at large, which is a relatively low bar.
Very few private, religious institutions make it into FIRE’s rating system. However, the
few Baptist universities that were included in the most recent report did not fare well.
For instance, Wake Forest University received a yellow-light rating and Baylor University was designated a “warning” school for policies that violated their own assurances of free expression on campus.
Baylor made news in 2004 for censoring its student newspaper. This spring Wake
Forest found itself in a public controversy over efforts to ban Instagram posts that were deemed racist and offensive. Students on Baptist campuses have often been confined to “safe-spaces” and forced to deal with unnecessary requirements to speak freely on campus, from having to get approval to host an event to go through an official process for approval to put up a flyer advertising a campus Bible study.
The North Carolina-based Martin Center published its own study in conjunction with FIRE that ranked North Carolina schools based on FIRE’s “Spotlight on Speech Code” guidelines and rating system.
A number of schools in the state received yellow-light ratings. They were in good company, as Mars Hill, Wingate, and Gardner-Webb received red-light ratings, along with 13 other private institutions in the state. Some of the schools had improved from a 2010 study, where others faltered.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was not ranked because it clearly states
that it places other priorities above free speech, though one can only imagine what
policies Southeastern has that stand in contradiction to freedom of expression.
This hardly seems to embody historically Baptist principles. It seems these historically
Baptist universities have three options going forward:
1. These North Carolina institutions will continue to follow in line with Cedarville
College or Liberty University, who have consistently made news for their
continued suppression of student newspapers and oppressive free speech
policies. They will continue to earn Red-Light ratings from FIRE and send mixed
signals about the Baptist view on freedom of expression.
2. They will follow schools like Southeastern Seminary that make the case that their
commitment to religious ideals supersedes their commitment to freedom and
continue to enforce policies that do not provide First Amendment protections on
campus. This will require a formal statement of belief and acknowledgment that
they do not believe that the Baptist ideal requires freedom of religion, press,
speech, assembly and expression, at least not in the context of a university
3. These widely respected institutions will follow in the footsteps of our Baptist
forebears and enact policies that support the principles of liberty and diversity of
thought that Baptists have historically held as values. In my view, this is the most
favorable option for free speech advocates.
The third option would be consistent with the legacy of Connecticut’s Danbury Baptists, who in 1801 petitioned President Thomas Jefferson for religious liberty and free speech when they were faced with institutions and systems that did not support their natural right to express themselves with sincerity and act in accordance with their utmost religious conviction. President Jefferson admirably responded with the frequently cited note, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Of course, there is a difference between private institutions and state-sponsored, public institutions. The wall of separation Jefferson recognized was not one that would force private colleges to protect or ensure freedom of expression.
In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly made the University of North Carolina a
national leader in free speech by passing House Bill 527 (“An Act to Restore and
Preserve Free Speech on the Campuses of the Constituent Institutions of the University of North Carolina”) which includes several provisions for the protection of free speech on public university campuses. This legislation does not apply to private universities, nor should it. However, in a state with a number of notable Baptist institutions and legacies of Baptists who advocated for free speech and religious freedom, it seems that the private institutions in the state would have already guaranteed First Amendment constitutional protections on campus. As legacies of those who advocated for free expression, Baptist institutions should be leaders and shining beacons for the vitality of the freedom of expression.
So, what changed? Apparently, a number of these institutions are committed to
creating a hospitable, diverse campus life and providing protections for college students who may be offended.
This is a commendable aim in theory, but it disregards the Baptist principles of freedom of speech, press, and assembly. It also disregards the Baptist commitment to quality education.
According to Hannah Holdborn Gray, professor emerita at the University of Chicago,
“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make
them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to create spaces of love, hospitable to
diversity and welcoming to all, not allowing free speech defeats that goal by excluding
or discrediting unpopular voices and radical opinions of the few – a spot many Baptists throughout time have occupied proudly. In many places still, Baptists are often the outspoken, radical, unconventional, innovative, and challenging voice in the room. There is nothing hospitable, loving, or Baptist about censorship.