Well, here's a strange tempest in a teapot. I've already had some lengthy debates about this in the semi-privacy of Facebook, and that has only moved me to blog about it more or less on the side of the student.
--Biola does appear to have lots of things that its faculty does and that the school as an institution does for the pro-life cause. That is undeniable and admirable. At the same time, it seems that Diana (the nursing student) got to her fourth year of a nursing degree at Biola without knowing about the reality of abortion. How did that happen? Also, when she set up her pro-life display, she claims that she encountered hostile students. If we assume (and I'll admit that I do assume) that this means some pro-choice students, how did that happen? Biola should be concerned that it is not succeeding in passing on the pro-life message and the truth about abortion to its students. That should be a priority for the institution, not asserting in heavy-handed fashion its authority to block the display of graphic pro-life signs on campus.
--It has been suggested to me that Diana is lying when she says that she didn't know that she wasn't allowed to display the graphic signs. Let's keep this straight. She admits that she knew she was breaking school rules by displaying the graphic poster sign the second time after having failed to negotiate permission to do so. She says only that the first time, after she got permission to set up a table with information about abortion, she was surprised to be told that she needed separate, special permission to display her signs along with the table. This is entirely plausible. Apparently she went through procedures and was given permission for the table but was then told that this permission didn't cover signs displayed at the table! That is extremely odd and inefficient and is not something Diana would have been likely to understand by the natural light. If the school is going to approve displayed content, why not approve it all at once? Why require separate approval for a table and for a sign and then play "gotcha" with a student who displays a sign at the table without getting that particular sign approved? Of course a student who has jumped through the hoops and gotten permission for a table will assume that signs on the same topic may be displayed at or near the table. If the school officials wanted to see the signs first or know more about them before approving the display, they should have asked. See the next point...
--I have now read the link here to Biola's policy about what it calls "student forums" and also the form students have to fill out. Please note that this is the very section of the handbook to which Biola itself directs attention in its response to the incident. So we might expect to find something here about having to get each and every sign you want to display approved, separately from getting approval for a table, since this was allegedly what Diana had to do. Nope. Not a word. In fact, neither link has any clear discussion of content approval, though the form has two lines for "type of event/event details." While I understand that Biola is a private organization and therefore is within its rights to exercise "prior restraint" on speech, and while I understand that it does in fact exercise this prior restraint by engaging in content pre-approval, it looks like the claim that Diana needed separate permission for a table and for a sign with the table is not supported by the school's own documentation. In other words, it looks suspiciously like such a "rule" was made up ex post facto after the administrators got complaints about her graphic anti-abortion signs and were looking for an excuse to rescind the permission which they regretted having granted for her table! If we're to talk about whose honesty is called into question by this aspect of the incident, it isn't Diana's.
--The school cannot succeed in insisting that this is not about abortion, since it was the school's resolute refusal to grant permission for pro-life content that triggered the whole thing. Outsiders such as myself are going to be understandably put off by any attempt to say that the abortion angle must be ignored and that this is "all about obeying due authority." We're going to want to know if the authority was rightly and wisely exercised by a pro-life school.
--When it comes to that question, it is extremely unsettling to consider that this otherwise pro-life school is so dead-set against letting an enthusiastic student hold even a graphic anti-abortion sign in public on campus for one hour (which is what she says she requested in negotiations) that it would send campus security to force her to stop and to threaten her with expulsion, arrest, and with not being allowed to march in graduation. (Not to mention Dr. Elliott's alleged punishment, which is so insane, so far beyond the pale, that I'm saving a discussion of it for the end.)
Pro-life people can disagree about the appropriateness and effectiveness of using graphic pictures of aborted unborn children, but it isn't a hill to die on, and the school makes itself look very bad by being so stubborn on the matter. Did Diana also make it a hill to die on? Sure. And I can acknowledge that this was somewhat over-the-top and perhaps somewhat unwise on her part. Diana made this a hill to die on because she is somewhat young and immature. The administrators also made it a hill to die on. What's their excuse?
--Related to the previous point: The video of safety officer John Ojeisekhoba threatening Diana with arrest and grabbing her sign interspersed with President Barry Corey's sermon about speaking truth and being taken out of your comfort zone is highly effective. The idea that their college students are going to get the vapors because they happen to walk by pictures of aborted unborn children is ridiculous, and it is all the more ridiculous at a college that is challenging its students to be taken out of their comfort zone, to speak truth no matter what the consequences, and to be radical servants of Jesus Christ. The contrast between such inspiring speeches and the cold, dead, repetitious, threatening mutters of Mr. Ojeisekhoba, "We told you not to show those signs here. You can't show those signs..." etc., is entirely creepy.
--Civil disobedience is a vexed issue. It is not going to settle this matter to quote Bible verses about obeying authority. Whether Diana was right or wrong to engage in civil disobedience when she displayed her sign the second time, it is simply pompous to get up on one's high horse and tell us that she has to obey authority because that's what God says or that she is a disgrace to the pro-life movement because she, gasp, disobeyed the school authorities. By that standard, every peaceful pro-life demonstrator who has ever been arrested within the bubble zone outside a clinic or praying in the driveway at Planned Parenthood is a disgrace to the pro-life movement. Not to mention MLK, Jr., whom a lot of pro-lifers admire. Whether to engage in a peaceful action that breaks a rule in order to bring truth to the public square is not a cut-and-dried question and cannot be settled by proof-texts.
--The school appears to be within its legal rights to block these signs from being displayed on its campus even for a short time. I'm actually quite pleased that a Christian school has the legal right to block content on signs being displayed on its campus. One can only imagine what would be displayed if matters were otherwise. However, the way in which the school chooses to exercise this right is something that other people have a right to criticize. Suppose we grant that everything Biola has done here is legal (though I hae me doots about Dr. Elliott's outrageous actions). If Biola decides to exercise its legal rights by bringing down draconian punishment upon a pro-life student who displays a picture of an aborted child on its campus, that is likely to result in bad press. It is unlikely to go over very well with Biola's pro-life constituency. If we're to talk about "expected consequences," those are consequences. Deal with it, chaps.
--Yes, Diana's voice sounds rather whiny in the video. Yes, Diana seems not to understand that her free speech rights aren't the same on a private college campus as they would be in some other public forum. Yes, the tone of the LIfesite News article is somewhat high-falutin' against Biola and seems not to recognize that Biola has a strong independent claim to being a pro-life school. But none of this is sufficient to make us think that the incident is made up or misrepresented. In fact, the school's own account, though it simply doesn't go into the "first round" concerning the table and doesn't mention Dr. Elliott, is, as far as it goes, in agreement with Diana's. If someone has specific, clear information that the facts are otherwise and can back this up, feel free to share it. "I don't trust Lifesite News on this story" does not count.
--Okay, on to Dr. Susan Elliott. Deep breath. What?????!!!! According to Diana's report, which is thus far not contradicted by any statement from anyone, the head of the school of nursing, Dr. Susan Elliott, went out and made up, all on her own, a penalty for Diana: She wrote to the nursing faculty and ordered them not to write Diana any letters of reference for employment. The outrageousness of this is indescribable. Speaking from an academic perspective, I must be emphatic here: Decisions about letters of reference lie between the student and the professor providing the reference, period. No chairman or administrator ought ever to have authority to forbid a professor to write a student a letter of reference, any more than an administrator has authority to require a professor to write such a letter. Letters of reference are some of the last vestiges of the old, personal, mentoring model of education. The professor agrees or does not agree to give the student his personal recommendation and to state honestly to another school or to a prospective employer what he thinks of the student as a candidate for the job or graduate school.
From the perspective of Diana's own prospects, this dreamt-up punishment is draconian to the nth degree. If Diana did wrong in displaying the signs against orders to the contrary, Elliott's action is similar to catching your child taking a cookie and breaking both his arms. It is utterly, unbelievably out of proportion to the "crime" to attempt to ruin the student's entire career. Whatever we might say about other administrators, such an insane and control-freakish act by Dr. Elliott must call her own pro-life credentials into question. Why in the world would any pro-lifer even attempt to carry out such an extreme punishment?
As regards the professors, such an attempt to control their letter writing is completely out of bounds and is an infringement of their prerogative to make their own decisions about personal reference writing. If a school doesn't trust a teacher to make "the right" decision about what students to write letters for, the school shouldn't hire the teacher. And please, readers who wish to defend Biola, don't give me, "Well, nobody should want to write a letter for her anyway." First, I don't agree. For all we know she might be an excellent nursing student, and a little over-enthusiasm and heel-kicking-up for the pro-life cause, even if it (gasp) broke a rule would not override that. But second, that's up to the professors to decide. If the unworthiness of Diana to have a nursing career is so blindingly evident from this one incident, why can't Dr. Elliott trust her esteemed colleagues to see that? This is insanity.
Now, I admit that it is possible that Elliott wrote a letter (I'm making this up) suggesting rather than ordering that professors not write letters of reference. Even if that were the case (and that isn't what Diana says), that would be an unwarranted interference between teacher and student and would be functionally coercive for any profs. who are untenured or over whom Elliott has other powers.
This is an abuse of Dr. Elliott's institutional power. It is beyond the pale. Whether it is legal or not I don't know. I would encourage any professors who were planning to write letters for Diana to stand up to it and defy it, to avoid endorsing such a crazy precedent of infringing their decision-making about letters of reference if for no other reason.
Moreover, I challenge anyone to go through the history of Biola and find any precedent for this, any other case in which an administrator has given a sweeping order to an entire department not to write letters of reference for a graduating student. I would be rather surprised if such a...creatively extreme punishment has ever been exacted before.
Those at a higher level from Dr. Elliott in the Biola administration should decisively slap down this high-handed maneuver. Yesterday. They should call in Dr. Elliott and tell her that she has exceeded her authority. They should send out a counter-memo affirming that professors may write letters of reference for Diana if they so choose and assuring them that they will be protected from retaliation from the head of nursing, Dr. Elliott, if they do so.
Priorities speak. Reading this story, I have to wonder why the Biola administration has not handled this as, one is tempted to think, they would handle a similar case if the issue were race or "social justice" of some other kind. Let's not forget that this is the school that spent a year or so beating its collective administrative, professorial, and student breast over the worry that the school's large mural depicting Jesus Christ was "too white." (Yes, this is really true. You can google it.) In my opinion, the response to Diana's enthusiasm should have been to channel it for good. For goodness' sake, let her hold her graphic sign for one hour. I think nobody is actually going to faint. But beyond that, call her in and ask her how in the world it happened that she got to her fourth year as a nursing student without understanding the reality of abortion. Ask her what can be done to fix this and to avoid this in the future. Don't misunderstand. The school does have a list of good things it does in the service of the pro-life cause, and there is nothing wrong with the school's bragging about that. (These include, ironically, a conference featuring Scott Klusendorf of Life Training Institute, who is an advocate of the use of graphic imagery in the pro-life cause.) But the message isn't completely getting across, and it's always possible to do more. Diana could be tapped as one source among others for ideas about what that "more" could be. I didn't notice screenings of The Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason in the list, though perhaps some professors do it in class. So there's one idea.
Normally one would expect a school confronted with a student who advocates one of its own causes but does so with perhaps somewhat of an excess of youthful enthusiasm to be thankful for the student's passion and to try to make use of that passion for a good end. Biola seems to have been more concerned to insist, with a kind of absolute authoritarianism bordering on obsession, that no "visceral imagery" of unborn aborted children be shown even for a short period of time in public on their campus. That was their matter of principle. But that is a strange priority. Priorities speak. Biola needs to go back, get out of its "we're in charge here" trap, and question its decisions in this case.