What did the university print and ...

gay flag... when did it print it? That's the question. Here's a quick note to the reporters covering the case of Jason Johnson, the student who has been expelled at the University of the Cumberlands after outing himself in his MySpace.com profile. I should, just to be clear, note that Cumberland is a Baptist university, but not part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach.

This is one case where reporters are going to need documentation on dead-tree pulp. We need to know precisely what the school said in its student-life policies and when it said it.

Why does this matter? In a Louisville Courier-Journal article by Mark Pitsch we learn that at the time the theater major was recruited the school's code of conduct barred only "lewd and indecent conduct." Is that true? It would appear so, since we also learn that a new policy says:

"Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw from the University of the Cumberlands."

Obviously, the word "promotes" is crucial. But that is not the big question for reporters at the moment. The big question is this: What did the student life handbook say the year that Johnson actually enrolled as a freshman? Were the policies in the handbook actually referenced in a printed document of some kind that he signed of his own free will when he agreed to become a student at this Baptist-affiliated school?

Here is why I ask. Over at the Lexington Herald-Leader, reporter Jamie Gumbrecht has some additional information, but not the smoking gun.

... (A) copy of the student handbook provided by the university confirmed the policy was not spelled out in 2003-04, when Johnson chose to attend. The school did not provide a copy of the policy for the 2004-05 school year. The 2005-06 student handbook says: "Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw."

School officials said that although the 2003-04 policy did not explicitly mention homosexuality, it did say that students must "conduct themselves, on and off the campus, in a manner which is consistent with the objectives of the College and with its standards of conduct."

Yes, it would appear the key is that missing 2004-05 student handbook and any documents the freshman signed that fall. However, there is a chance that Johnson -- as a sophomore at the start of the fall of 2005 semester -- may have signed an updated student-code pledge of some kind. It matters if he, at some point, signed a document that said he was bound to honor future changes in the university's student-life code.

Reporters need to ask these questions for a simple reason. Private colleges -- on the left and the right -- have the ability to make the rules for their own voluntary associations. "Freedom of association" is the key phrase here, and this applies to Baptist colleges as well as to voluntary associations of gays, lesbians and lots of other people. On that theme, Pitsch provided some helpful background in that Courier-Journal story:

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said yesterday that private colleges are entitled to enact rules and require students to abide by them.

"The relationship between a student and a private institution is purely contractual in nature. A student is presumed to be aware of the terms and conditions of that contract. Case closed," Steinbach said.

Pitsch also notes:

In a written statement last week, President Jim Taylor said: "At University of the Cumberlands, we hold students to a higher standard. Students know the rules before they come to this institution. We've followed our policies and procedures in keeping with our traditional denominational beliefs. ... We are different by design and are non-apologetic about our Christian beliefs."

If students "know the rules before they come to this institution," that means they are written down somewhere and that students had a chance to affirm or reject them as they enrolled. It appears to me -- as a reporter and a veteran professor on Christian campuses -- that the journalists covering this story need to find out what the university printed and when it printed it.

The school has every right to make its own rules and to attempt to enforce them consistently. Reporters -- find that signed piece of paper and you have the story.

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