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FIRE calls on Liberty University’s leadership to end censorship of student press

Nearly two years ago, FIRE cautioned that “[t]he student press at Liberty University is not a free press.” A new report reveals that Liberty’s limits on student expression have not wavered. Today, FIRE calls on the university to reconsider its treatments of students’ expressive rights in light of president Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s claim that the university “promotes the free expression of ideas.”

Last week, WORLD MAGAZINE published an article covering nearly two years of censorship of student newspaper the Liberty Champion. Though Liberty itself describes the newspaper as “student-run,” WORLD documents the involvement of Falwell, Jr. and other university officials in its editorial decisions. Champion staffers reported a number of worrying incidents of prior restraint, censorship, and threats, including:

  • In October 2016, sports editor Joel Schmieg wrote a column critical of comments made by President Donald Trump during a leaked recording from a 2005 filming of “Access Hollywood.” In it, Trump claimed that he “grab[s] [women] by the pussy.” According to Schmieg, Falwell, Jr. told Schmieg’s editor not to run the column because the paper already planned to run a piece on Trump that week. Schmieg also claimed that, after he posted the column to his own Facebook page instead, a Liberty graduate student warned him — on behalf of Champion adviser Deborah Huff — that he should not do anything similar again in the future.
  • In early 2018, Champion writer Jack Panyard interviewed the director and producer of the film Commander, which “tell[s] the story of Mark Taylor, who spoke of his vision that Donald Trump would become president.” During the university’s review of the piece, Panyard’s skepticism about Taylor’s story was cut, leading Panyard to remove his name from the article.
  • In April 2018, Panyard — who had been chosen by Huff as editor-in-chief the month before — wrote about the university’s treatment of unmarried students living on campus who became pregnant. The story included interviews with a student expelled from campus housing as well as the president of Liberty’s pro-life group, Lifeline. The story was cut before publication.
  • When “Red Letter” leader Shane Claiborne announced his intention to host a “Revival” in Lynchburg, Virginia and pray on Liberty’s campus, campus police threatened him with a fine and jail time. Champion news editor Erin Covey expressed interest in covering the Revival and the Liberty students who announced that they would be speaking at it. When Covey requested comment from Falwell, Jr., he replied that same day “Let’s not run any articles about the event.”
  • On an April 18 phone call with the Champion staff, Falwell, Jr. reportedly said that the paper had been “established to champion the interests of the university, disseminate information about happenings on Liberty’s campus, as well as the positive impacts of Liberty in the community and beyond. And as such, the publisher of the publication, which is the university, is responsible for content decisions, to find stories to be covered by Champion personnel and makes all of the calls on the articles, photographs and other content. … We’re going to have to be stricter in the future if these protocols aren’t followed.”
  • In an April 27 meeting, Dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content Bruce Kirk warned Panyard that Liberty intended to restructure the Champion, and that Panyard’s position, editor-in-chief, would no longer exist. Four members of the paper resigned after Panyard’s firing. Kirk later told the Champion’s new staffers, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. … Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?”
  • WORLD further reports that “edited stories before publication must go through a two- or three-stage approval process: first to the faculty adviser, then to a panel of faculty members, and after that possibly to Falwell, himself for approval before publishing.” Additionally, “students on the newspaper staff who receive scholarships must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that says those scholarships are ‘conditioned on my full and continuous compliance with all the following Newspaper Rules throughout the fall and spring semesters of the 2018-2019 academic year.’” Champion staffers also cannot comment on social media “about any publication of the Liberty Champion or its affiliated communication services.”

These are only some of the acts of censorship alleged by Champion staffers.

As FIRE explained when the first reports of Schmieg’s revoked column emerged, Liberty is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, and one that makes no promise of free speech for its students. As such, it can censor its student press, however illiberal or wrong-headed that may be. Indeed, although it is not currently listed in FIRE’s Spotlight database — which rates only the top 100 private institutions, in addition to many public universities — Liberty is what FIRE would call a “warning school.” We call them “warning” schools for a reason — students should be forewarned that when a private college explicitly places other values above the right to free speech. At such an institution, there are few safeguards against censorship.

But, as we noted then, Jerry Falwell, Jr. presented an image of Liberty University that was in stark contrast to one that regularly censors student journalists. On Oct. 13, 2016 — around the same time Schmieg’s article critical of Trump was censored — Falwell, Jr. released a statement expressing Liberty’s support of freedom of speech in response to claims from student group Liberty United Against Trump. Falwell, Jr. wrote, “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.” (Falwell, Jr.’s statement, along with hundreds of other remarks from university leaders about freedom of speech, can be found in FIRE’s Leader Statement Database.)

Today, FIRE is calling on Liberty University to explain why its president’s portrayal of the university differs from the one experienced by its student journalists. FIRE’s letter reminds Falwell, Jr. that:

This portrayal of the university’s values differs markedly from the one presented in WORLD’s coverage. If the reports by WORLD are substantially accurate, Liberty has deployed prior review against Champion and prior restraint against its journalists in the form of non-disclosure agreements. While Liberty may have the right to subject Champion to this level of administrative control and censorship, there is no denying that these tools are so fundamentally at odds with freedom of expression that they are rarely encountered outside of military establishments and prisons. Liberty can be a university that “promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities,” or it can be one that privileges its reputation and institutional messaging over its students’ free expression. It cannot honestly claim to be both.

In a response to WORLD’s coverage, Falwell, Jr. posted a rebuttal at Newsmax attempting to justify Liberty’s behavior toward student journalists, including the claim that Kirk is not a “spokesman” for the university. But, as FIRE explains in our letter, these justifications fall short:

Unfortunately, the rebuttal does not address all of the outstanding issues. Your claim that Kirk “was not speaking as a spokesman for the university, nor as a spokesman for me,” fails to address a fundamental problem. While Liberty can argue that Kirk’s comments to students misrepresent the university’s official position—which would indeed be a welcome development—it cannot reasonably claim that Kirk was not speaking on behalf of the university while advising Champion staffers in his official role as Dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content. Students cannot reasonably be expected to assume that senior members of Liberty’s administration are not “speaking on behalf of the university” when conducting their official duties.

Additionally, in your response, you voice frustration: “[T]he press cover[s] my involvement as if I am the only person at Liberty University who should have no say in what is published in a newspaper that is owned and operated by the University.” But if Champion is truly a “student-run” outlet at a university that “promotes the free expression of ideas,” outside observers would reasonably expect that those in leadership positions at Liberty would refrain from using their power to dictate the paper’s content.

If Liberty University is not an institution which extends to its students unfettered freedom of expression, then its leadership should not hold itself out as such. FIRE hopes Liberty will embrace freedom of expression in policy and in practice. FIRE would be happy to work with Liberty to revise its policies and procedures to respect student press and live up to Falwell, Jr.’s claims that the university “promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities.”

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