Some students at Brigham Young University want to talk about LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and dissent within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, when they felt censored as writers at the school’s student paper, The Daily Universe, they opened up their own news outlet.
Martha Harris, a co-founder of Prodigal Press, said she wanted to start an independent news organization because she and others were frustrated by censorship imposed by The Universe and felt they needed to create an alternative for expressing ideas.
“We talk about things that aren’t allowed to be talked about in other media outlets on campus,” Harris said.
BYU has a history of restricting students who write for the school’s publications, as documented by Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel in their chronicle of BYU’s history, “The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU.” In 1972, according to the book, writers at The Universe were given a list of taboo topics not to cover, including polygamy, communist propaganda, evolution and “other claims of science” in conflict with church teachings that “could cause embarrassment to the church of the university.”
“I chose to attend a university with a long, brazenly proud history of institutional censorship,” wrote Sage Smiley, who graduated from BYU in 2019 with a degree in journalism, in a 2020 op-ed for Prodigal Press detailing her own experiences with censorship at the university.
David Clove, another co-founder of Prodigal Press, knew there was a space not being filled by BYU’s own outlets.
“There are topics that everyone just stays away from,” he said. “I knew people who wanted to talk about them.”
But, Dr. Kris Boyle, a faculty member at BYU’s school of communications and advisor to The Universe, said censorship is no longer an issue at the paper.
“There’s not a set list of things we just never cover,” he said. “We look at everything, and if we think an idea has value to our audience, we explore it.”
Tara Karnes, a contributor to Prodigal Press, said writing for alternative outlets is important to allow members of the church to consider a greater number of possibilities, such as how the church policies affect LGBTQ+ members or how the church addresses men and women differently, even if they have a hard time accepting it.
“If you’re saying it’s possible, then you are immediately construed that you’re saying that’s how it ought to be,” she said. “The premise that it’s possible should be something that everyone [within the church] can accept.”
Some church members, while not agreeing with much of what Prodigal Press publishes, are convinced that their faith goes beyond current practices of the church, however.
“It’s important to remember that whether they’re right or wrong about church policies, it doesn’t affect my belief,” explained Kimberly Jaffrey, acknowledging that church policies and practices change over time. “The restoration of the gospel is an ongoing process.”
Reaching an audience
With nearly 2,500 followers on Instagram, Prodigal Press has caught some attention, but has not yet reached faithful members of the church. For Karnes, it doesn’t matter if Prodigal Press is the future of the faith or a short-lived blip in the church’s history.
“People who are in the mainstream of the church believe they hold absolute truth so they’re really sensitive to the tone of anyone disagreeing with them,” she said. “I don’t think that burden needs to be on people trying to change things to always do that, to make an appeal to moderates and the mainstream.”
Karnes believes progressive views are held by a minority of members of the church but that perspectives are beginning to move.
“Things progress over time,” she said. “It feels cocky for me to say that one day women will hold the priesthood and same-sex marriage will be accepted within the church, but I have a hard time seeing how the church is going to keep membership without walking some stuff back, and they’re already starting to.”
The church came under national scrutiny in November 2015, for example, when new policies said members who enter into same-sex unions will be considered apostates and their children will be barred from church baptism and blessing rituals without explicit permission from the first presidency, the leading body in church hierarchy.
Less than four years later, in 2019, the church reversed this policy.
Facing down backlash
Despite Prodigal Press taking an antagonistic view of BYU, Karnes thinks it is largely safe from any backlash coming from university officials.
“I don’t think they’d try it because it would just make them look authoritarian,” she said. “Imagine how many pieces people could write about that.”
For some contributors at Prodigal Press, concerns are less about the endurance of the publication, but about backlash from BYU faculty and administration towards them as students at the school. A recent piece criticizing the use of BYU’s dress and grooming standards in the university’s award-winning advertising program known as the AdLab was published anonymously because the contributor worried they may receive backlash or even disciplinary action from the school if their name was attached to the article.
Boyle agreed that individual punishment for publications and their writers is unlikely.
“We’d have to look at specific circumstances,” he said, “but we encourage our students to become critical thinkers and create substantive journalism.”
BYU’s honor code has no rules against expressing criticism of the school so long it is honest and respectful of others. Karnes thinks the greater concern could be the school looking for violations of the honor code in contributors’ own personal conduct.
“It would be easier for them to go after individuals,” she said. “If you make noise, BYU might choose to scrutinize some students more and you might find something to get them in trouble — not expel them, but make life more difficult.”
Karnes iterated that while she thought BYU targeting individual writers of Prodigal Press was more likely than targeting the outlet as a whole, that it was still unlikely that the school would take action against them.
Prodigal Press’s latest publications can be found on its website.