Interview – Zach Schneider, The Ventriloquist, and Cedarville University’s Threat to Independent Journalism

On April 23, Zach Schneider and a few other students at Cedarville University were standing outside of the school’s chapel, preparing to hand out copies of The Ventriloquist, an independently produced student publication not entirely unlike Brickwork. The Ventriloquist was founded after Cedarville began censoring the university’s official student paper in 2010, and in a video interview with Huff Post Live, Schneider says that The Ventriloquist’s mission is to “publish news, articles, opinions – things of that nature that aren’t able to necessarily get a voice elsewhere on campus.”

Cedarville is a private Christian institution, and attending the daily chapel service is mandatory for students; hence, distributing copies of the journal there had proven to be an efficient and successful practice. In fact, The Ventriloquist had been distributing in ways similar to this for its entire existence – two issues per semester for four years, beginning in 2010 (the April 23 issue was The Ventriloquist’s thirteenth). While the previous twelve issues had been released without much trouble, the same cannot be said about unlucky thirteen.

As Schneider – the journal’s editor – and his friends got themselves ready to distribute copies of The Ventriloquist’s last issue of the semester, they noticed Cedarville University’s president, Thomas White, and Vice President for Student Life and Christian Ministries, Jonathan Wood, begin to approach. Wood approached Schneider directly and told him that he did not have permission to be distributing the paper and began attempting to take the copies from Schneider’s hands; after seizing copies of The Ventriloquist from another student nearby, President White moved toward Schneider as well, who finally allowed his copies to be taken. Schneider followed the administrators and asked if he could have the copies back, since they belonged to him; the administrators told him that The Ventriloquist was being confiscated. Schneider received no prior warning or command to stop distributing until that point. Later, White made an official statement claiming that his administration “did not shut anything down” because the articles were still viewable online, and saying, “What we did was prevent unauthorized solicitation when it was brought to our attention.”

When it comes to why this confiscation happened now, after a drama-free four years of successful distribution, Schneider told Huff Post Live that it almost certainly didn’t have anything to do with the thirteenth issue’s content, as the move to confiscate happened so quickly that the administration likely didn’t even read that issue’s articles. The previous issue, however, featured a front-page story called “The Final Decision” written by Avery Redic. Redic was a highly involved student at Cedarville, serving as Campus Community Director for the Student Government Association and a university tour guide, and having just accepted a position as a OneVoice Gospel Choir leader. But then, he came out as gay, which prompted Wood to remove him from all of these positions on the last day of classes before finals week. Over winter break, Redic withdrew from Cedarville University.

Redic’s article, “The Final Decision,” is a glimpse into how all of this unfolded, and into the psychological effects of the administration’s decisions on Redic himself. “How did I feel?” he writes. “I hated myself. Immediately after Jon’s decision I asked myself these questions and I hated myself for it: Should I have asked God to take homosexuality away from me more often? Should I have cried out more often than I had? Should I have asked for more counseling in high school than I had already received? Should I have been receiving counseling now? Should I have tried dating women, to see if I’d like it? Should I have never come to Cedarville, knowing that this would be an issue?”

Along with Redic’s article, the twelfth issue of The Ventriloquist also featured a piece called “Fear at Cedarville,” written anonymously by a gay student at the university and detailing the psychological ripple effects of the administration’s decision to remove Redic from his leadership positions. These two articles, in Schneider’s estimation, are most likely what lead to the administrative confiscation of The Ventriloquist’s thirteenth issue.

Schneider, who was a senior while these events were unfolding, has now graduated from Cedarville. In his farewell letter on The Ventriloquist’s website, he says that the future of the publication is uncertain. Brickwork extended our support to Schneider and The Ventriloquist, and Schneider agreed to answer some questions via email.

MM: When did The Ventriloquist first come into existence, and how has it changed since then? Was there an event or an issue that sparked the start of the publication, or was it a gradual dissatisfaction – and if it was the latter, what were the main sources of this dissatisfaction?

ZS: The Ventriloquist came into existence in 2010. In 2009, the university began censoring the official student newspaper, Cedars, due to content that they disliked because they thought it was unbiblical. In response, the staff of Cedars pulled the final issue and many of them quit and later formed The Ventriloquist.

Can you explain a bit about how The Ventriloquist is funded, printed, and distributed, and how these processes have changed since the publication first started?

The Ventriloquist is funded by an annual grant from Generation Progress, a journalism organization in D.C. that provides grants to progressive journalism outlets on college campuses across the country. It’s printed and distributed usually twice per semester; we actually just print using Fedex Office. We distribute by having student distributors holding stacks of copies standing in well-trafficked areas (usually outside of the chapel building after the daily chapel service) and passing them out to students. All of this has been mostly the same since the publication was started; our first couple of issues were funded by small, private donations before we got the Generation Progress grant.

In your Farewell from the Editor piece, you say that The Ventriloquist’s mission “is to provide a platform and a voice for ideas and perspectives that cannot find it elsewhere on campus” – what kinds of voices and perspectives have you seen most often silenced or brushed aside on your campus? And what is it about the process of writing, publishing, and distributing these voices that you’ve found to be empowering?

I’ve often seen a number of ideas and perspectives brushed aside at Cedarville. The university has undergone a large-scale shift towards fundamentalism over the past year or two (with a large number of administrators, faculty, and staff departing, often under pressure), and The Ventriloquist has had an important role in publishing the truth about the events of the shift, as opposed to the university’s PR which generally denied that any kind of shift was happening. Additionally, The Ventriloquist has provided a platform for student groups that are in the minority or hold minority opinions; in the past, this has included LGBTQ students, women, students with mental health issues, and students of color. This is especially true with regards to LGBTQ issues and women’s issues (as the university is adopting complementarianism – the idea that men are the head of the household/leaders – as its official doctrinal position).

Distribution of these kinds of voices is empowering because many students at Cedarville come from conservative backgrounds and have never actually engaged in good faith with someone who is a Christian and gay or a Christian and a feminist. It’s also empowering for students on campus to feel like they’re not alone in their struggles – that, if nothing else, there are others on campus going through and speaking out about the same kinds of things.

How has The Ventriloquist engaged in subversion in its mission, and to what extent do you think that subversion has contributed to the success or failure of its mission? What is the place for subversion in independent publishing, particularly when the material being published deals with oppressed voices?

The Ventriloquist engages in subversion insofar as it functions to disrupt the campus hierarchy by giving a place and an outlet for oppressed voices to speak. Moreover, The Ventriloquist often publishes material critical of the administration (or that the administration would like to keep secret) and plays an important role in keeping them accountable. I think that subversion has a important role in independent publishing, but I think the primary focus ought to be towards providing a platform for oppressed voices to speak the truth about the status quo. I think that this often results in subversion – but the goal is not to be subversive for subversion’s sake, but rather to focus on the people who need a voice.

Aside from the recent confiscation of The Ventriloquist’s latest issue, has the publication run into any other roadblocks or challenges over the course of its existence? Have other pieces of writing that you’ve published received backlash from the student body or the administration – and if so, what were these pieces about, and what effects did the backlash have?

The Ventriloquist hasn’t faced any kind of administration backlash prior to the recent confiscation. Students are often divided on issues – each article will usually have both those who vehemently agree and vehemently disagree. In many ways, though, this is the goal – to get students discussing important issues and becoming aware of other perspectives so they can be self-critical and improve their own understanding of the issue at hand.

What do you think will be the most harmful or dangerous consequences of the administration’s seizure of your latest issue, in the long-term picture? Aside from the fact that this issue, which a lot of people put hard work into, cannot be distributed, what else do the administration’s actions communicate?

I think the most harmful consequence of the seizure of The Ventriloquist is that it chokes off one of the major sources of alternative perspectives on campus. I’m skeptical that the administration will turn around and give us permission to distribute next year, and distributing off campus makes it more difficult to publicize and distribute new issues. I think that the administration has already choked off many other sources of critical thought and this represents a major step back for Cedarville as an institution of academic inquiry.

What are some ways that students can respond and mount resistance when censorship like this occurs – whether it happens to you all at Cedarville, to us here at Miami, or to any other group of writers and publishers at any college across the country?

I think that speaking out against censorship is one of the best tools to fight it. Private universities such as Cedarville have the legal authority to censor publications on their campuses; but if that’s the route they want to take, I think that the general public should know about it. Media organizations are generally interested in stories of censorship, especially of students, and I think that media pressure is an important tool. Also, at public schools such as Miami, there are a greater number of legal recourses available.

You’ve said that you’re not sure what the fate of The Ventriloquist will be, since you’re a senior and you’ve stepped down from the editor position. Instead of asking you to speculate what might happen with the publication, though, I’d rather ask what you might want to say to any students at Cedarville or at any other college who are interested in continuing to create and distribute independent journalism next year and beyond – do you have any words of advice for those who might desire to do this kind of work on a college campus?

I would say that producing a publication like The Ventriloquist is hard work but is also incredibly rewarding. The things that we cover matter, and for all the criticism and pushback that The Ventriloquist receives, it’s all worth it when I hear students and faculty tell me that they feel like they have a voice because of the articles that we publish. I would encourage college journalists of all stripes to keep persevering – journalism can be difficult but is also extremely important.

For our readers who might be interested in following your personal work beyond The Ventriloquist, what are you hoping will be the next stage of your own career as a writer and editor?

I’m actually not sure if my career in journalism will have much of an exciting future. I’m a computer science major, not a journalist; I don’t plan on working in journalism after I graduate. However, I am a firm believer in the importance of journalism and I hope to carry the skills and experience that I gained with The Ventriloquist on into other aspects of my future life.

The Ventriloquist can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@TheVPaper on both), and issues of the journal can be read for free online at theventriloquist.us.

-Matt Metzler, for Brickwork