CNN reports on a Bob Jones University student, Chris Peterman, who was denied the opportunity to graduate on May 4 when his school suspended him nine days before he was due to receive his diploma.
The 23 year old political science major’s conflict with the school began when he started campaigning against former Pastor Chuck Phelps who had been allowed to keep his seat on the BJU Board of Trustees after allegations of covering up a sex abuse scandal at his old church. The abuser involved in that case is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for statutory rape. When he found out about the case Peterman posted links to the story on his personal Facebook page and was swiftly called into a meeting with the BJU’s Dean of Men.
BJU students are required to sign a covenant each year detailing what behaviors the University considers permissible on and off campus. Public demonstrations for causes or institutions opposed by BJU is one of the prohibitions on this list and this appears to the basis of BJU’s complaint against Peterman who started a ‘Do the Right Thing BJU’ Facebook page on the Phelps issue.
“I was told that I’d have to stop posting that stuff, or I would be expelled,” Peterman said in an interview with CNN. The Dean of Men “said that the administration was upset with what I was saying. He said that the public relations department was following everything because it was giving Bob Jones a bad name.”
Peterman didn’t stop. He felt that his actions were protected by the First Amendment in spite of the BJU code of conduct and that the Department of Education would protect his activism. He told the Dean of Men as much.
“They backed off. … I went home that Christmas, Chuck Phelps resigned from the board, and Bob Jones announced that they were going to form a sexual abuse committee,” he said. “I thought everything was good. I was talking with abuse victims and referring them to a support network, RAINN [the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network]. I had other students joining in. It was very good.”
On his return to BJU for his final semester, Peterman reports that he felt as if he was being harassed and followed. In April he started receiving demerits for various tweets and social media postings. This was a problem because BJU rules state that a student accumulating 150 demerits during a semester is suspended for a full semester.
One of the stranger claims in Peterman’s version of events is that he was given 50 demerits for watching an episode of ‘Glee’ in a Starbucks off-campus. If proven true this will go a long way to backing his claim of targeted harassment as while watching TV on BJU campus is prohibited no such rules exist for off-campus. Peterman appealed the ruling and got a CNN affiliate involved, a move which further incensed BJU and only hardened their stance on the student.
Peterman is currently appealing his case to BJU’s provost and still hopes to gain his degree from the institution. Whether one believes that Peterman should have stayed off social media in his final semester so as to not rock the boat any further, or whether one is vehement that he shouldn’t have to moderate off-campus behavior, the case is an interesting illustration of the problems many schools are having working out how to cope with social media.