Crusade doesn't end at UVA

By Philip Walzer

The Roanoke Times and World News, November 13, 1995

Three years ago, Ron Rosenberger was a University of Virginia senior battling the school for denying funding for his Christian magazine, Wide Awake.

Now, in a cramped cubicle in an office in Northern Virginia, with a Barry Goldwater quote tacked on the wall for inspiration, he’s helping other conservative student editors overcome obstacles to publication.

For Rosenberger, nothing has changed – and everything has changed.

Because, in the interim, another thing happened. Rosenberger sued the university, and the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that he was right: UVa had violated his rights to free speech.

The ruling has college lawyers across the country scouring their funding policies to make sure they’re in line with the court’s wishes.

UVa will soon see the ripple effects of Rosenberger’s suit: Wide Awake is expected to publish its first university-financed issue this week (with stories on AIDS, Disney and ”careerism”). The Board of Visitors took up revisions in funding guidelines last week.

Saturday, the board adopted a committee’s recommendations as a short-term solution that allows students a partial refund of their activity fee and makes political groups on campus eligible for funding, according to Director of News Services Carol Wood.

Wood said the committee will re-convene to consider whether the changes are the best options for the long-term and present their findings in February.

All because Rosenberger wouldn’t take no for an answer.

”I believe one person can make a difference,” he said recently. ”The average American citizen can get involved in the process, and if you stand up strongly, you can change things. In my case, I changed things broadly and on a national scale.”

And yet the decision and the blitz of publicity haven’t much changed the 25-year-old Rosenberger.

Sure, he’s been on National Public Radio, CNN, ABC. He testified before the Senate. But he still lives in an apartment in his parents’ house in Great Falls. He’s still much more eager to talk about the musings of sociologist Robert Nesbitt or the Christian conflicts of the Irish rock band U2 than about the big names he’s met (”I’ve never been much of a hero worshiper”).

And even though the case is finally over, he’s still pursuing the same theme.

Rather than go to law school or hawk a book, he started a job last month helping conservative and Christian editors on campuses across the country.

”I believed in what I was fighting for,” Rosenberger said. ”I don’t think Christians should be treated as second-class citizens, and I don’t think Christian students should be treated as second-class students.”

Michael McDonald, president of the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, which represented Rosenberger, was taken with him from their first meeting. ”The first thing that struck me about him was his seriousness of purpose and maturity,” McDonald said.

”One of the main things administrators rely on is that students too often don’t have the stick-toitiveness to stick with these kinds of fights. But we knew he’d be there for us.”

So immersed was Rosenberger in the lawsuit that he never got to his senior thesis. So although he completed his coursework in his major – political and social thought – he left UVa in 1992 without a degree.

Rosenberger’s persistence continued the day the Supreme Court announced its decision. Though he was the plaintiff, he wasn’t guaranteed a spot in court to hear the ruling. So Rosenberger got a pass to sit in the press section – as the Supreme Court reporter for Wide Awake magazine. ”There’s always more than one way to cut through bureaucratic red tape,” he said.

He didn’t let the lure of the limelight dim his priorities. After the ruling, ”The 700 Club” called, volunteering to fly him to Virginia Beach for an interview the next day with Pat Robertson. But that day he had scheduled a conference for 100 students in Washington to discuss the case. He politely refused the trip and ended up doing an interview in CBN’s Washington office.

At the time, Rosenberger was working with Young America’s Foundation in Herndon, which promotes conservative voices on campuses. The job ended over the summer. Last month, he got one even closer to his interests – director of the student publications school of the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit group in Springfield that seeks to groom conservative leaders.

The school helps fledgling student editors with grants, seminars and tips on everything from investigative reporting to getting advertisements. (”You can beat speech codes, multiculturalism and political correctness,” a pamphlet promises.) Morton Blackwell, the institute’s president, says that with Rosenberger’s drive and firsthand experience, he’ll surely help increase the number of publications like Wide Awake.

Rosenberger said there’s a reason he has stuck with jobs that link him with students: ”I enjoy working with young people. They’re not cynical. There’s still an innocence about them. They’re adventurous.”

And then he paraphrased a verse from the Bible: ”Raise a child in the way he should go, and he will not soon depart from it.”

It’s not just students in college that interest him.

One of Rosenberger’s first jobs was as a substitute teacher in middle and high schools, an experience he speaks of with enthusiasm. He still volunteers with teens at his church, Christian Fellowship in nearby Ashburn – tutoring them, talking to them, sometimes roller-blading with them.

”Kids aren’t going to listen to you unless they know you care about them,” he said.

Rosenberger calls himself a ”nondenominational Protestant,” having migrated between Christian Fellowship, Wesleyan and Presbyterian churches. ”A lot of the things that differentiate denominations,” he said, ”are minor issues of theology,” such as whether baptism requires sprinkling or immersion.

As his father, Warren, a retired engineer, said, ”He’s dead serious about what he believes; it’s not a mouthed kind of thing.” Even Rosenberger’s leisurely pursuits are connected to his central purpose.

Along with reading heavyweights such as antifeminist Camille Paglia and Nesbitt, he admitted dipping into the tawdry stuff of novelist Bret Easton Ellis – but only to better connect with teens. ”To effectively critique the culture, I can’t talk about how bad ‘Kids’ was if I haven’t seen ‘Kids,”” he said, referring to the controversial movie about juveniles who indulge in sex and drugs.

His musical tastes lean heavily toward U2 – because of its religious message.

Rosenberger knows that some say the band has succumbed to the decadence of superstardom, but he thinks it’s still struggling with the ”tension between being a big rock band and being a Christian.”

Rosenberger wishes U2 would boldly proclaim its Christianity, maybe in a Beatles-like ”White Album,” with a cross in the middle of a blank cover to drive home the point. ”Sometimes they’re so subtle and sophisticated, your average 14-year-old kid doesn’t get it.”

The lyrics don’t escape Rosenberger. He recalls a concert in Hampton a few years back when U2 sang its hit ”I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

The lead singer, Bono, got to the lines that Rosenberger sees as a vision of heaven, of ”one body in Christ”:

I believe in the kingdom come

Then all the colors will bleed into one…

You know I believe it.

Then Bono turned to the crowd and added: ”I still do.” Rosenberger’s heart swelled. It meant, he thought, ”he still believes in the faith.”

Like Rosenberger, he hadn’t changed