This is my obligatory disclaimer, informing readers that I am a Liberty University alum, before I launch into another piece addressing the absolute dereliction of duty by LU President Jerry Falwell Jr.
Falwell Jr. is a devoted foot soldier for the Trump tribe, and not only has trashed the notion of Liberty University as a Christian college, through his rabid defense of every vile thing said or done by Trump, but also has gone out of his way to put a boot on the throat of the free speech of Liberty students. In particular, he has heavily censored the voices of those who oppose being connected to Trump by association.
During the primaries for the 2016 election, Donald Trump only got 8 percent of the LU student body vote. Florida Senator Marco Rubio got the grand bulk of the vote, with 44 percent.
You would think that kind of vote would send the message, and as a good college president, Falwell would step back, tone down the rhetoric, and then take into consideration just why these Christian college students felt so strongly against being connected to Trump the candidate.
The tensions really ramped up after the reveal of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, where then-candidate Trump boasted of his wealth and celebrity being the key to committing gross acts of misogyny.
The students objected. Falwell Jr., as well as a host of other evangelical leaders, greeted the news with a hearty wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Falwell Jr. actively worked, in his position as school president, to shut down any articles in the school newspaper, the Champion, that spoke critically of Donald Trump.
Further, student journalists were discouraged from speaking out on their personal social media pages against Trump, as well.
Tension between the newspaper and Falwell emerged in 2016: To the dismay of some Champion staffers, he strongly endorsed Donald Trump. Falwell began reviewing prior to publication Champion articles that mentioned Trump. On one occasion, he made Champion editors end opinion pieces with a note on how they were voting. Opinion writer Jordan Jarrett chose not to and found a note under her published article: “The writer refused to reveal which candidate she is supporting for president.”
I’m trying to think of any society that would put those kinds of conditions on their journalists.
Yes. I know it was just a college publications, but Liberty University is a community within the wider Lynchburg, Virginia community.
After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, sports editor Joel Schmieg wrote an opinion column, criticizing the characterization of the talk as being “locker room talk,” an excuse that Trump’s defenders tossed around during the ensuing turmoil.
Falwell told the editor of the paper to shut the piece down.
Frustrated, Schmieg posted it on his Facebook page, and Champion graduate assistant Nate Haywood approached Schmieg on behalf of Champion adviser Deborah Huff, warning him not to do anything like that again. Instead, Schmieg resigned: “I didn’t feel comfortable being told what I couldn’t write about by President Falwell.”
That’s what character looks like. Good for young Mr. Schmieg.Throughout 2017, Falwell and faculty members buried story after story, crafting a specific image of what the school paper – and by extension, the student body – stood for.
Meanwhile, Liberty junior Jack Panyard was writing lots of bylined articles—but one he wrote did not have his name on it. Early in 2018 he interviewed the director and producer of a film, Commander, planned by Liberty’s Cinematic Arts program. Based on a 2017 book, the film was to tell the story of Mark Taylor, who spoke of his vision that Donald Trump would become president. Panyard’s piece indicated some uncertainty about Taylor’s descriptions of talking with God. When his article came back from vetting, those reservations were gone. Panyard took his name off the piece.
That’s right. The movie featuring the dubious “prophecy” of Trump’s ascension to the throne of America. It’s enough to test the gag reflex of anyone not part of the Trumpidian cabal, but for the true believers, just one more sign of Donald Trump’s god-emperor status.
Stories regarding Trump weren’t the only stories to get stepped on.
Several stories regarding the Red Letter Revival were squashed.
I get it. The Red Letter Christians are left leaning “Christians” that only study the words of Jesus from the Bible, but basically discard everything else.
It’s not unusual to hear them refer to God as “she,” even though I’m pretty sure they’ve never seen Jesus’ words refer to his Father that way.
In an emergency conference call with the staff of the paper, Falwell laid down the law.
Falwell then called and told them the newspaper 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 other words, the school faculty would tightly control what was printed. There would be no more acts of student journalism, seeking out stories, formulating editorials or opinion pieces. They would be told what to write about, then they would write.
To that end, several positions were abruptly cut out.
Panyard lost his gig as editor-in-chief, effective from the moment they broke the news to him.
Erin Covey lost her role as news editor.
Both lost the scholarship money that came with the positions.
Bruce Kirk, dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content played prominently in those firings.
The firings had repercussions for the whole organization. Four staff members resigned from the Champion, two right before they graduated. Kirk offered the open positions to two students: One declined and one accepted.
Kirk told the 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?”
The LU reputation, I’m afraid, has been tossed down a deep, smelly sewer drain, thanks to Jerry Falwell Jr. and his unfortunate grab for position in the Trump orbit.