A Minnesota judge has dismissed charges of fraud and negligence filed against Bethel College and Seminary by a former student upset by classroom study of sexually explicit material.
Andrea Sisam, in her suit, claimed the college violated its contract with her and other Bethel students because of the sexual content in films and literature under study. Bethel has a prohibition on the possession or use of pornographic material.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Paulette K. Flynn on April 30 ruled that Sisam's claim "is essentially an improper attack on the general quality of educational experience Bethel College provided its students." The judge declined to rule on whether the First Amendment's free expression of religion clause shielded Bethel from the suit or whether the materials in question were pornographic. The judge said dismissal is justified because the Sisam suit did not detail a verifiable "breach of contract" or fraud committed by Bethel.
APPEAL EXPECTED: Sisam's attorneys—who are also her parents—say they will very likely appeal. "The judge's ruling leaves more room for appeal than if she'd dismissed it on Bethel's argument," says Dorothy J. Buhr, Sisam's mother and attorney.
If the suit is appealed, there may need to be another plaintiff. The judge noted a potential conflict of interest by Sisam's parents acting as her attorneys.
When Sisam was a first-year student at Bethel, she was assigned to read the Battle Royal chapter of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man, an award-winning examination of racism in America. In other classes, she viewed the 1989 film Do the Right Thing and several scenes with sexual situations from the 1979 film The Tin Drum, but did not see the film in its entirety. After complaining and not being satisfied with the school's response, Sisam, now enrolled at the University of Minnesota, filed the lawsuit. Bethel denies that the materials in question are pornographic.
Since the suit has been resolved, Bethel has taken the opportunity to revise its procedures for handling classroom examination of controversial material.
The school has created a statement on academic freedom for student and faculty handbooks and has clarified the process by which students may appeal for alternative classroom materials. In addition, Bethel's faculty and administration are re-evaluating policies regarding curriculum selection and use.
Bethel President George Brushaber, who also serves as chair of CHRISTIANITY TODAY's senior editors, says, "This ordeal reminds us how important it is for us to treat tough, difficult material sensitively."
CONTROVERSIAL CURRICULUM: While very few controversies over college-level curriculum reach the courts, Bethel is not alone in defending integration of Christian faith with the study of potentially upsetting classroom materials.
"Most presidents have a handful of cases a year that require writing a letter, making a phone call, or meeting with disgruntled parents," says Robert Andringa, president of the Washington, D.C.- based Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.
Most misunderstandings happen when people confuse the role of the Christian college with that of the church, says Jay Kesler, president of Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.
"The church's role is indoctrination," Kesler says. "The role of education is to question presuppositions. The goal of a Christian [liberal arts] college is to develop an informed reflection on the nature of the world."
Kesler, who has faced questions about controversial curriculum in the past, developed a carefully worded written response to parents and students.
In one passage, he wrote, "Over the years, I've seen many Christians fall from the faith … because they felt they had been shortchanged or deceived by a sheltered or repressive education.
"I've seldom seen this among Taylor graduates because they have faced these ugly and offensive anti-Christian influences under the guidance of caring, Christian professors."
In 1995, Taylor responded to public complaints about classroom study of the dramas Fifth of July and Angels in America, both of which contain vulgar language and sexual situations.
STUDYING NOT ENDORSING: "People don't get the point that studying about something is different from endorsing it," says George Marsden, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Ox-ford University Press, 1997). "When you're studying something, you're being critical."
Attorney Buhr, nevertheless, says it is possible to study literature and film while maintaining an atmosphere free from explicit images. "The question is Do you really need that scene?" Buhr says. "Without that scene, have you removed from the content its classical value?"
From Andringa's perspective, Christian colleges play a role not only in educating their students, but also in educating the evangelical community concerning the value of a Christian liberal arts education.
"Most presidents enjoy winning over skeptical parents and defending Christian liberal arts education," he says. "But the problem is not with parents' concern. The problem is when it goes public, and hundreds of prospective students, donors, and alumni get conflicting messages."
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