The student press at Liberty University is not a free press. That much was made clear yesterday when news broke that Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., who has endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy, censored an article in which student journalist Joel Schmieg criticized Trump over recently leaked tapes. According to Schmieg:
“[My editors] read the [president’s] email to me. He said, basically, the gist was that there were two articles this week about Trump,” Schmieg told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “One was a letter to the editor from a Liberty alum, and they didn’t want two things running about him.”
Schmieg, sports editor and weekly columnist for the student newspaper, the Liberty Champion, went on to say that Falwell Jr. reads—and has the power to censor—“everything controversial” before it’s printed. You can read the column Schmieg planned to publish in its entirety at The Daily Beast.
So, what happens next—can Liberty actually censor student speech on campus? The short answer is yes. At a public university that is legally bound by the First Amendment, or at a private university that promises to defend students’ expressive rights and is contractually bound by those promises, FIRE would have grounds to intervene. But Liberty is a private university that does not promise freedom of expression, instead maintaining behavioral guidelines that reflect its religious mission of “training champions for Christ.” FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff explained Liberty’s policies further in 2012:
Similarly, Liberty University makes it extraordinarily clear to its students that they are giving up all manner of freedoms that they would enjoy at a public college. All applicants to Liberty must sign a contract stating that they have read and agree to abide by “The Liberty Way,” which stresses that Liberty students must “live a chaste, honorable and virtuous life” and “may not engage in any activity on or off campus that would compromise the testimony or reputation of the University or cause disruption to Liberty’s Christian learning environment.” Incoming Liberty students are knowingly contracting to give up certain rights—this is what the law refers to as “informed consent.”
Greg then discussed the “contract theory” of private colleges’ obligations in 2012, explaining that Liberty is free to organize itself around Christian principles and require that members of the campus community adhere to the university’s mission-specific conduct regulations, so long as it is clear about those expectations:
Most private colleges—like Yale and Harvard—promise free speech and other basic rights in glowing language. Other colleges, like Liberty or Brigham Young University, place their religious identity above all else, making clear to incoming students that free speech takes a backseat to faith on campus.
But while private universities are free to organize around a select set of values, such as Liberty’s understanding of Christianity, they are most certainly bound by the promises they make in their materials to faculty and students. This “contract theory” of the obligations of private colleges isn’t whimsy; it’s binding legal precedent in most states, where courts have held that colleges may be required to honor the contractual promises they make.
This is as it should be. One could hardly maintain a functioning society if people could enter into contracts without any legal obligation to fulfill them. And make no mistake about it; universities like Harvard, Yale, and so forth are not issuing extensive promises of free speech and academic freedom out of the goodness of their hearts alone. They know full well that many gifted students, high-caliber professors, and wealthy donors would be reluctant to join or contribute to schools that do not guarantee them the same rights that students and faculty receive at public colleges.
The situation at Liberty is not an uncommon one. Last year, Wheaton College—an evangelical Christian college in Illinois—was thrust into the spotlight when its administration suspended political science professor Larycia Hawkins for what it perceived to be deviation from religious doctrine after Hawkins publicly stated that Muslims and Christians believe in the same god.
What we wrote then about Wheaton applies to Liberty as well: It’s incredibly important that students and faculty examine the policies of a campus community before they choose to become a member. At FIRE, we operate under the presumption that institutions will respect expressive rights on campus unless they plainly state otherwise. Like Wheaton, Liberty does not prioritize those rights. Although Liberty is not currently included in FIRE’s Spotlight database (which rates only the top 100 private institutions, in addition to many public universities), it would be classified as a “warning” school if it were included. We call schools like Liberty “warning” schools for a reason—students should be forewarned that when a private college explicitly places other values above the right to free speech, students questioning those values will face censorship.
However, that’s not exactly the end of the story. Just last week, Falwell Jr., who openly supports Trump’s candidacy, offered this response to a petition from Liberty students asking him to revoke his endorsement of Trump:
I am proud of these few students for speaking their minds. It is a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.
If Jerry Falwell Jr. is sincere in stating that Liberty values freedom of expression, then this is a perfect opportunity for him to prove it by reversing his censorship of the Liberty Champion. He should also work to revise Liberty’s policies to reflect the pro-expression principles he claims his university promotes (FIRE, of course, would be happy to help Liberty reform its policies). If not, Falwell’s words are empty—he cannot cloak himself in the mantle of freedom of speech while demanding censorship power over student press.