Alex Green, editor-in-chief of the Triangle, the student newspaper at Bryan College, thought his story about a former teacher's arrest on sex charges would benefit his school. He had no idea it would instead put him and the school at the center of a nationwide debate on press freedom.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, Green thought no good could come of hiding the charges facing Dr. David Morgan--attempted aggravated child molestation and child sexual exploitation. Members of an FBI task force arrested Morgan in late June after he arranged to meet agents posing online as minors.
Green wanted people on campus to know about Morgan so that the incident's sordid details would not come back to haunt the school, as Sandusky's misdeeds tarnished Penn State.
But Dr. Stephen Livesay, president of the 800-student Christian school in Dayton, Tenn., didn't share Green's belief that dragging Morgan's story into the open would help the school. Shortly before the story would have appeared in the Triangle, Livesay ordered Green to kill it.
Rather than pitch his story in the trash, Green printed it on flyers and distributed them around campus--a direct violation of the school president's wishes. He left stacks of the flyers in front of the dorms and in the campus' public spaces.
Although Green might have thought the story wouldn't make it off campus, someone sent the flyer to media blogger Jim Romenesko and other news outlets quickly picked it up. Reporters and TV news trucks swarmed the usually quiet campus on Wednesday as administrators scrambled to defend their decision.
In a statement released late Wednesday, Livesay said he and his cabinet decided that since Morgan left on his own, the events surrounding his resignation need not be made public. Despite the charges facing the former faculty member, the school had no proof of his guilt, Livesay said. The information in Green's story came from public arrest records and an FBI press release.
After Morgan's arrest on June 24, school officials announced the professor had resigned, effective July 31, to pursue other opportunities. Morgan had served as assistant professor of Bible studies and assistant director of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice. According to Green's story, the school's announcement included Morgan saying, "My time at Bryan has been a dream. I have thoroughly enjoyed conversation and interaction with all who make up the administration, staff, faculty and students of Bryan. I have been treated with graciousness, and I have had the privilege of working alongside some incredible Christian people." The announcement did not mention his arrest or pending charges.
Like almost all student newspapers, the Triangle is owned by the school and its stories are subject to review by school administrators. Although many public universities allow their student publications to operate with some degree of independence, most private colleges retain strict control over what their student journalists publish.
Because the school has control over the newspaper's content, Livesay did not believe it could justify putting itself "in the position of commenting on pending criminal or judicial matters."
Green did not respond to a request for an interview. But in a sidebar printed with the banned story, Green said he expected some would disagree with his decision to reveal the truth about Morgan: "Some will applaud me. Some will be livid. Some will feel that I am defaming and throwing salt into a very fresh and a very sore wound. Some will believe I have stars in my eyes."
Green went on to say that he did not believe publishing the story would cause a "Penn State moment" for Bryan but might prevent one.
Although Green, a senior, told Romenesko he knew he risked expulsion for printing the story, Livesay said he would not face any further punishment. The experience has taught Green that actions sometimes have unintended consequences, Livesay said. But his heart was in the right place, and both Green and administrators have learned "many good things" from the experience, Livesay said.
In hindsight, killing the story might have been a mistake, Livesay admitted. Administrators believed they were doing the right thing in protecting Morgan's privacy. They had no reports he had behaved inappropriately during his two years at Bryan. The background check done before the school hired him came back clean.
"Our intent was to look at the situation as Christians and do what was right," Livesay said. "As humans, we are fallible. What we can do is learn from our mistakes."