Rethinking Menno-Pause: free speech in a Mennonite context

Rethinking Menno-Pause: free speech in a Mennonite context

Fifty-four years ago, in the garage of what is now Goshen College’s Physical Plant, five students printed Indiana’s first underground paper: Menno-Pause.

At a time when the counterculture of underground newspapers was at its peak in response to the Vietnam War, gay rights and a hippie movement, Jim Wenger, Lowell Miller, Tom Harley, Sam Steiner and Verlin Miller wanted to talk about it.

But one month and two issues later, in October 1967, four of those students were expelled for their actions, to the overwhelming approval of both the administration and the student body.

While there have been other underground publications at GC – the Underground Railroader in 2002, the Conscientious Objector in 2012 – there has never been an underground publication that challenged Mennonite culture and tradition quite like Menno-Pause did. 

And the question is: Could there be? 

Could a group of outspoken students, inspired by the nation’s current events, once again publish openly opinionated pieces about a decline in conservatism on campus, about unpopular housing policies, about a drop in enrollment? 

Could they do all this – and get away with it?

The Bill of Rights, assuring our freedom of speech, says yes, but my time as a student journalist at Goshen College convinces me otherwise. 

As the executive editor of The Record this past fall, I wrote in my inaugural editorial of goals to hold those in authority accountable for their actions, of elevating voices that are too often overlooked, of doing “hard” investigative journalism.

I spoke of all these expectations and more, and then I came to terms with reality, the reality that the guarantees of the First Amendment look very different for a private, Mennonite school in Goshen, Indiana. They did in 1967 when Menno-Pause was distributed in the dining hall during breakfast and they do now when articles highlighting online anger towards GC’s treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and past alumni are called into question.

Granted, The Record is not an underground newspaper. As a school-sponsored publication, we are expected to abide by certain guidelines not applicable to underground publications: We rarely use profanity, we don’t approve threatening content, we even avoid disrupting school harmony. 

And at Goshen College, The Record staff is even given the freedom of publishing each week’s issue without prior approval from a faculty advisor.

But when our sources are the same professors we see in class, the same people we go to church with, the people we live next to, share the same high school alma mater as, this question of free speech is all mixed up in the peaceful notion of what it means to be a community at a private, Mennonite institution.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, most underground papers are born out of a school’s attempt to censor or shut down a school-sponsored student newspaper.

Though Menno-Pause was not a result of this, I can’t help but think there was a need for a different kind of platform, that these topics addressed in Menno-Pause were being censored in other ways across campus.

In the 1970s, the college introduced an opinion board that students could post signed and unsigned statements on about all manner of controversial articles.

The fact is many college students, including those at GC, wish to write about more controversial topics not covered, or allowed to be covered, in the official school newspaper.

So, we look to the precedence of underground publications. 

The Supreme Court has yet to voice its opinion on the matter of underground publications.

All we know at GC is that the boldest attempts of underground publications have failed.

I can’t help but think of former Goshen College President Paul Mininger – the same president who expelled the four students over 50 years ago. The same president who reconsidered his decision in his last year of life. 

“I am drawn to reflect again on the Menno-Pause episode,” he said.

He wished he could have the chance to do this one over. 

And, I wonder, if the current Goshen College president were to make a statement today in regards to underground publications and the monumental precedent of Menno-Pause, what would she say?

Could we get away with publishing one?

History tells me otherwise.

Written by Mackenzie Miller, Staff Writer

4 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    April 30, 2021

    ms. miller:
    kudos to you (and whoever else) for lifting up that “obscure” bit of g.c. history.
    a number of tidbits in your piece deserve much more contemplation and reporting.
    1. “their actions” – what was it really that produced the expulsions?
    blasphemy, cursing, political position? what? and did that “what” possibly obscure more important issues addressed in the underground publication. equally importantly, did the students set themselves up by placing that “what” in the paper? was it worth it?
    is it even possible that you were unable to explicitly state what that “what” was due to either self or institutional censorship? in other words is the absence of that explicit statement an answer to your question?
    2. the apparent support of the expulsions by faculty and students. sourcing? how do we know this?
    3. the president’s ostensible regret about the expulsions. more detail needed. says who? i have no doubt it is true, but more documentation is needed.
    4. the record faculty adviser at that moment was professor dan hess. his experience needs to be lifted out. it was ugly, although he and the president reconciled at a later date. it is unclear to me how many, if any, of the faculty reconciled with him later.

    methinks that until you get that kind of clarification it is difficult to answer the question of whether history could repeat itself, unless it already has.

  2. Avatar
    March 13, 2021

    Interesting piece! There was an opinion board in the 1960s as well; I used it multiple times.

  3. Avatar
    March 12, 2021

    The Marginal Mennonite Society welcomes you to our underground community. We trash Mennonite institutions all the time. And we curse, too.

  4. Avatar
    March 12, 2021

    Peace is always an over-riding concern for Mennonites and Mennonite publications. Following the way of peace, does not give us the freedom to express ourselves as freely as we might like to. We cannot express ourselves as freely as Jesus did in His time. But then we are not Jesus. And we always have a wide variety of opinions among the constituents that the publication serves. Respectfully presenting our case always helps – avoiding inflammatory language. However, I have practically given up writing for our church paper because there is always too much “common sense” that is of course not common sense to every one. It seems the only way to write is to use such mild language that no-one knows for sure what we are trying to say. Preaching to the converted will get you published but does not accomplish anything.