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Southern Seminary ‘shocked and offended’ by inaccurate ABP news story, Smith says

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has challenged the accuracy and fairness of a Nov. 30 story published by Associated Baptist Press and published in the Nov. 30 issue of Kentucky’s Western Recorder.

The story, written by Western Recorder editor Trennis Henderson, reports the filing of a lawsuit against the seminary by one of its students, Henry Judy, who was suspended from the school until December 2000 for academic misconduct. The seminary also ordered Judy and his wife to vacate from their student housing residence. The couple was $871.12 in arrears in rent payments as of Nov. 16, seminary officials said.

Judge William Knopf of the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled Nov. 29 to stay enforcement of a temporary injunction previously imposed upon the seminary by the Jefferson County Circuit Court, which had been granted without notice to the seminary. The injunction would have allowed Judy to complete his classes this semester, as well as classes during the January 2000 term.

Knopf’s decision upholds the seminary’s suspension of Judy until the full three-judge panel of the Appeals Court can rule on the injunction.

Judy claims Southern denied him the due process spelled out in the SBTS student handbook and that he was unfairly prejudged by seminary officials.

Defendants in the case are seminary personnel R. Albert Mohler Jr., president; Daniel L. Akin, vice president for academic administration; Daniel E. Hatfield, vice president for student services; Russell T. Fuller, assistant professor of Old Testament interpretation; and Eric A. Mitchell, instructor of Old Testament interpretation.

Henderson’s story inaccurately portrayed the situation and is damaging to Southern Seminary, said James A. Smith Sr., the school’s director of public relations, in a statement Dec. 1.

“Southern Seminary is shocked and offended by this inaccurate news story,” Smith said. “Kentucky Baptists must know that their editor has done a grave disservice to them by his handling of this matter and has harmed the student and Southern Seminary.”

Henderson, however, stood by “the accuracy and news value of the article as published in the Western Recorder” in an interview with Baptist Press. “There apparently were a few minor editing errors when the article was published in ABP, but they don’t alter the basic facts of the story. I find it interesting that seminary administrators were unwilling to be interviewed prior to the article’s release but now appear anxious to discuss the merits of the reporting itself.”

Smith cited several problems with Henderson’s story:

— Henderson didn’t report the Nov. 29 Appeals Court decision in favor of the seminary. Henderson attended the Nov. 29 hearing at the Appeals Court, Smith said, when Knopf announced his intention to rule on the appeal by 4:00 or 4:30 that afternoon.

“The seminary’s attorney received the ruling shortly before 4:00 p.m. — approximately 24 hours BEFORE Henderson’s story was released by ABP,” Smith said.

Henderson also incorrectly reported that “Judge Mershon was expected to rule in a few days on a hearing on the injunction order held Nov. 29.” In fact, Smith said, “Judge Mershon is the Circuit Court judge who issued the temporary injunction. It was Judge Knopf, the appellate judge, who presided in the appeal hearing and announced his intention to hand down a decision the very same day, not ‘in a few days,’ as reported by Henderson.”

Henderson said he filed the story “prior to the hearing and we plan a follow up story on the outcome of the hearing.”

— The story will mislead readers to believe that the suspension was based only upon one cheating incident, Smith argued. “In fact, the court records — made available on Nov. 24 to Henderson by the seminary’s counsel — make quite clear that the suspension was the culmination of an extended effort to work with the student in a loving and gracious manner,” Smith said.

Henderson neglected to mention that Judy was already on academic probation as of Dec. 28, 1998, “after the student agreed that he gave the appearance of cheating on a final exam and submitted to disciplinary action,” Smith said. He also didn’t report that “the seminary merely extended the student’s probation” after learning “this spring … of the student’s securities fraud conviction for a crime he committed before coming to Louisville. …

“Additionally, a three-tiered process of appeal, as stipulated by the Student Handbook, was followed with great care and integrity,” Smith continued. “Although Henderson reports on the appeal, he fails to report that the 10-member Disciplinary Committee, which ruled 9-1 in favor of upholding the suspension, is comprised of five students and five faculty members. This fact seriously undermines the student’s claim that ‘his fate was sealed before he began an appeal process outlined in a student handbook,’ as Henderson reports.”

Henderson said he didn’t think Judy’s misdemeanor conviction “was relevant” to the story and expressed doubt about that information being admissible in court. “I did reference that he had previously been accused of cheating,” Henderson said.

— According to Henderson’s story, Judy was “scheduled to graduate in December” and “seminary officials suspended Judy from classes five weeks before the end of the final semester.” But according to court records, Smith said, Judy never claimed he was to graduate in December. The temporary injunction even instructs Southern Seminary to allow Judy to take classes in the January 2000 term “which shall be required to complete his degree program.”

Smith said Judy was not scheduled to graduate in December and was attempting to arrange six hours of reading seminars to complete his coursework, thus allowing him to graduate in May 2000. “Henderson could have easily verified the student’s graduation status by asking the seminary or simply reading the court records,” Smith said. “Instead, as with most of the story, Henderson accepts the student’s claim without verifying the facts.”

Smith also took exception to Henderson’s statement that Akin declined to comment for the story, “giving the impression that the seminary refused to cooperate with him on the story,” Smith said.

In reality, Smith said the seminary’s attorney provided Henderson with all the relevant court material and was even interviewed by Henderson, although that information was not reported. Smith also called Henderson on Nov. 24 to ask about his intentions for the story.

“He merely indicated that he was ‘gathering information’ and had not decided whether he was going to do a story,” Smith said. “To have made the decision to go ahead with a story of this importance without informing the seminary is deeply offensive. It appears to demonstrate an animus towards the seminary on the part of Henderson rather than a desire to be fair and balanced as he has repeatedly claimed to be among his goals as editor of Western Recorder.”

— Henderson reported that Judy is “an ‘A’ student” without citing a source for such a claim, Smith said. Even though the seminary doesn’t divulge student grades, “a cardinal rule of journalism requires that reporters should cite their sources. Instead, this matter is reported without giving attribution, giving the impression that this is an accepted fact,” Smith said.

As for Judy and his wife being evicted from student housing, Smith’s statement said Henderson reported the eviction as being connected with Judy’s suspension. Henderson didn’t report that Judy was two months in arrears on his housing rent. “This information was also part of the court records made available to Henderson,” Smith said.

Associated Baptist Press is a news service based in Jacksonville, Fla., with ties to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The Western Recorder is the weekly newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth
    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.Read All by Tim Ellsworth ›