Ethan Francois said he kept his mouth shut about a culture of censorship during his senior year at Louisiana College for fear of being expelled over any public comment or social media post about the institution.
Now, less than two weeks after graduating, Francois is speaking out forcefully against the private Baptist liberal arts institution to "shed light" on how it uses its status as a Christian college to silence criticism and debate.
Francois was formally censured in July 2020 by Louisiana College for what he believed to be a harmless question to administrators on Twitter about a proposed Trump administration policy that prohibited international students from legally remaining in the United States during the pandemic if they were taking classes entirely online. Steven Oxenhandler, an attorney with Gold Weems Bruser Sues & Rundell who represents the college, said administrators interpreted the tweet as “accusing them of not protecting international students.”
“I am curious how @LA_College is preparing to reassure our community of international students that they aren’t at risk of losing their F1 Visas,” Francois’s tweet said. He tagged the college’s president, Rick Brewer, asking, “is there a chance some Wildcats could be subject to deportation due to this policy?”
It wasn’t the first time Francois weighed in on college or political controversies on social media. He had tweeted from his personal account about a college administrator’s chapel sermon in February 2019 that some students found offensive to women and which prompted the resignation of a professor, Russell Meek. Francois called women administrators who defended the sermon “sycophants” in a tweet and said the college “lacks bravery and conviction.”
He also ran an anonymous Twitter account, Louisiana College Confessions, that posted anonymous criticisms and complaints about the college by students. Francois used the account to alert students about the college’s new, stringent social media policy for students and employees, implemented in summer 2019, which he felt was a violation of free speech rights.
Francois stopped these activities after he was censured, however. He decided it was best to lie low and not risk further disciplinary action or jeopardize receiving his degree -- he had one year left at the college. Since graduating on May 8, he’s been calling attention to the college’s “authoritarian” policies for speech and expression. He wants young, unwitting Christian students who are considering attending the institution, as well as their parents, to be aware of college administrators’ firm control over student and faculty member dissent.
Oxenhandler said Francois was on thin ice even before his tweet about international students. The “sycophants” tweet degraded and disparaged college administrators, which goes against the university’s policies for social media use, he said. Francois was warned to be mindful of his posts in an August 2019 meeting with Cheryl Clark, the college’s vice president for academic affairs, who told him to “guard what you put on social media” and that “it’s not Christlike to try to tear down a Christian institution,” according to an audio recording Clark made of the meeting that was provided by Oxenhandler.
Oxenhandler said students and employees at the college don’t actually have free speech rights under the college’s policies. "The First Amendment does not apply to private institutions like this," he said. He pointed to a section in the Student Handbook that details the college’s rules governing social media activity.
"As a private institution, Louisiana College may restrict ‘free expression’ if it deems that the speech is detrimental or harmful to LC’s core values and mission," the handbook states. "Employees and students of the institution who voluntarily choose to work for and/or to attend the institution voluntarily give their informed consent to waive their right to unfettered free speech."
Following his tweet about international students, Francois was called in to meet with Brian Manuel, coordinator of student behavior and accountability at the college, who issued a letter that said Francois had violated college policies, including rules against harassment, “disrespect of community authority” and “improper social media use.”
Francois said he was hastily removed as interim president of the Student Government Association, in accordance with a rule that students in leadership and those running for election may not have a record of disciplinary action. He said SGA leaders selected him to take on the role during the pandemic and he understood it to be a yearlong position. However, according to a statement from the college, Francois “was never elected by the student body” and therefore was not officially the president.
Over the last decade, Louisiana College faculty members have also spoken out or filed lawsuits to challenge the college’s lack of academic freedom and prohibitions against criticism of administrators. Other former students said their social media accounts were closely monitored and at times they were told to remove posts that were not even their own, but retweeted from other accounts.
“I was watched like a hawk,” said Cassidy, a 2016 graduate who did not want her last name used. She was verbally warned by the director of the college’s gospel ensemble about a meme she retweeted because the account that originally posted it had “homosexual undertones.”
Abigail Jones, a 2020 graduate and close friend of Francois, said she felt she was “being listened to or watched” after she was summoned to a meeting with the dean of students in October 2019 over a retweet she posted. The original post included the word “fuck,” and she was warned that retweeting it could be grounds for suspension, Jones said.
“It ended up not being a huge deal, but it felt like administration’s way of saying, ‘We’re watching what you say and post,’” she said.
Meek, the professor who resigned and who is now a visiting professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology in Colorado, said he sees Louisiana College’s 2019 social media policy as a direct response to his harsh criticism of the college before he left and an attempt to prevent further public dissent.
Free speech “is not valued or promoted or embodied in any sense at the school,” Meek said.
On Feb. 17, 2020, nearly a year after Meek resigned, Oxenhandler sent him a cease-and-desist letter demanding that he remove social media and blog posts Meek wrote about the controversial chapel sermon and threatened legal action. Meek’s lawyer sent Oxenhandler a letter in response that refused to retract the posts and called the cease and desist a "ham-handed attempt to bully" Meek.
“They touted when I was there that we were a Christian liberal arts college,” Meek said. “They’re saying we’re a liberal arts college and we’re Christian, but a genuine Christian value would be free expression. Evangelical Christians think it’s their right to speak openly about their faith.”
The college’s website states that it is “the only Baptist, Christian liberal arts college in Louisiana.”
Francois said for an institution that purports to be a liberal arts college, administrators have a clear disregard for free and open debate, especially when it involves campus-related issues.
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, said liberal arts colleges should “be committed to principles of open exchange, critique, discussion and growth.”
Francois said this is not the case at his alma mater.
“Louisiana College has attempted to create this perception that they are both a place of higher learning committed to rigorous academia, but also a place where students can continue committing to and learning about their deeply held faith,” he said. “That’s absolutely and totally wrong.”
The college’s social media policy “has zero resemblance to a place of higher education and certainly not a liberal arts school," he said. "Here we are supposedly attending a liberal arts college and we’ve got speech codes at the same time. How can those two things happen?”
Oxenhandler, the college’s attorney, said the self-described “liberal arts” noted on the college’s website refers to the institution’s academic offerings and does not mean “that it has liberal woke politics.” He said the college holds different standards for free expression in the classroom versus on social media.
“There’s an absolute free flow of ideas in the classroom where people debate issues. On social media there is not,” Oxenhandler said.
Multiple requests for comment from college officials went unanswered or were directed to Oxenhandler. He said administrators were not available for comment. Elizabeth Clarke, a spokesperson for the college, did not respond to requests for comment and interviews with administrators.
A four-page statement from the college provided by Oxenhandler called allegations Francois made in an recorded May 14 interview with the Bayou Brief, a nonprofit journalism organization, and posted on YouTube, “false” and “defamatory.” Francois said in the interview that he was fired from a tutoring job at the college’s writing center over his social media use, which Clark, the academic affairs VP, told him was not the case. He also said in the interview that he was elected president of the SGA, which Oxenhandler vehemently disputes.
"LC always welcomes constructive, relevant feedback," Oxenhandler said in an email. "There is, however, a Grand-Canyon size difference between constructive feedback and outright untruths and defamatory language, which is what Meek and Francois engaged."
Francois called the college’s statement “blatantly false” but said what “matters is that you have a liberal arts college restricting free speech, which is in direct contradiction with their values.”
Friedman, of PEN America, said Louisiana College’s status as a private institution means it is not bound by First Amendment requirements and that the law grants administrators “great leeway to craft policies like this with a great amount of impunity.”
Adam Laats, a professor of American education history at Binghamton University in New York and author of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, said Louisiana College’s restrictions on speech are not unique among evangelical Christian institutions. In fact, such policies are a “central, intentional selling point” of such colleges and universities, Laats said.
“The promise was, and this goes back to the 1920s, that they guarantee there’s no faculty that will disagree and will uphold these [Christian] beliefs,” he said. “It’s a deliberate guarantee that there isn’t academic freedom.”
The colleges do care immensely about their public image, Laats said. The free speech and expression limits on students and faculty members show a “darker angle” of institutions such as Louisiana College that advertise small class sizes, strong faculty-student relationships and adherence to strong Christian beliefs, he said. It’s not good public relations if administrators are “muzzling” students to achieve this, he said.
However, “for people outside the world of evangelical colleges, the assumptions are that they don’t care about academic freedom and are embarrassed about it, which isn’t true,” Laats said. “It’s not an embarrassment. It’s a promise.”