By Amanda Sullivan Sokolik

Lately, it seems like every time I turn on the news or log onto social media, my alma mater is front and center. And, most of the time, it’s not news befitting the largest evangelical university with the tagline of “Training Champions for Christ” – at least on the surface. 

Most of the articles I’ve read are pieces parading as “real” journalism. Will E. Young’s “Inside Liberty University’s Culture of Fear” was a particularly frustrating read – specifically the portions about my former professor and current mentor and friend Deborah Huff. From what I know of the situation, his piece is very one-sided. I’d like to share my experience about Liberty, censorship and “real journalism.”

Let me start from the beginning. I walked into the Champion Office as a college freshman and told Mrs. Huff that I wanted to be her Editor and Chief. She told me that was a little ambitious for a first-year student. My reply: “I’ll do anything – even take out trash – if you let me be in the office and learn.” Mrs. Huff saw my potential and created a position for me. I was the Assistant Opinion Editor – a two-page section that didn’t warrant two editors. But, she gave me the opportunity to learn. 

Nearly three years later, I had held almost every position on the Champion, including delivering newspapers around campus. I was now the News Editor and next in line for the coveted Editor in Chief position. At this time, the relationship between Liberty University and the City of Lynchburg was precarious at best – mostly because the ACLU had just affirmed that college students could cast their ballots in the city where they resided most of the year. The City of Lynchburg was enraged by this because many were under the impression that Liberty students didn’t have an effect on the economy and, therefore, didn’t deserve to have a voice in local elections.

As a college senior, I had completed most of my journalism courses by my junior year, which left me my fourth year to put what I had learned into practice. As we were heading into a highly contested local election for Delegate, I noticed that the local newspaper The Lynchburg News & Advance was running little-to-no content about Republican candidate Scott Garrett (the same Scott Garrett that Young references in his article). The coverage focused almost solely on incumbent Shannon Valentine, which to be honest is expected. But, I was taught to tell both sides of the story, and the Lynchburg residents and Liberty students were only getting one side of the story. So, I devised a plan to tell both sides of the story utilizing the medium I had – the Liberty Champion. 

I sketched the front page during my biology class and bounded into Mrs. Huff’s office, detailing my idea. Her response: pitch the idea to President (then Chancellor) Jerry Falwell Jr. Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone – Jerry Jr. had purview of the Champion. I, as did the editors before me, walked the pages down to his office for review every Monday morning. So this wasn’t a completely foreign concept to me. What was new was the phone call Mrs. Huff received asking for us to come to his office to discuss this idea further. 

We walked in to President Falwell’s office and were met by several high-ranking officials at Liberty. Jerry asked me to pitch my idea to them. I detailed my idea to run both the republican and democratic candidate on the front page – something that hadn’t been done in recent Champion history. I told them that I wanted to give equal coverage to each candidate. There would be a short profile of each followed by a Q&A giving each candidate a word budget of 1,000 words. There would be at least one editorial supporting each candidate, again of equal word length. I would write my position in my editorial column after I had interviewed and studied each candidate. I will never forget, after hearing executive after executive espouse why they thought this was a bad idea, Jerry Jr. turning to me and asking my opinion. I replied: “You teach us here to think critically and to gather all the facts and make our own decisions within our worldview. That’s what we would be doing here – giving the facts and letting people decide.” I believe the fact that I was proposing equal coverage swayed President Falwell’s decision to let the Champion cover both candidates. And, that’s what we did. We also increased our 5,000 circulation to approximately 30,000 for a special edition, consistently producing 15,000 (with 5,000 of those copies mailed to “friends and donors” within the community) – becoming a direct competitor to the local paper.

So why did I just spend the past 600 words detailing that scenario? To help you see the other side of Liberty’s so-called “culture of fear.” Because in my experience, Liberty didn’t instill fear into me. The experiences I had at Liberty University empowered me.

Here’s some things you should know about Liberty:

It’s a private institution. That means that the idea of “free speech” doesn’t really exist within a campus newspaper – and anyone who’s taken a coms law class should know this (looking at you Will Young). See, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

The Champion is university funded. The Liberty Champion is funded by – you guessed it – Liberty University. Most student newspapers are funded via a combination of ad sales, paid subscriptions and university funding. So, it makes sense to me that the university would want a voice as to what runs in the paper since they pay for it. The Champion affords students the ability to practice their newly minted journalism skills, but the truth is that the publication is a reflection of the university – essentially, it’s used for public relations. I knew this as a student and worked with President Falwell to find a happy medium. In my experience, if I proposed something and gave logical reasons as to why I thought it was a good idea, it was accepted. Now, doesn’t that sound awfully similar to real-world job experience?

Students were given direct access to university officials. Up until Will Young’s reign at the Champion, the students had direct access to President Falwell, which afforded them some amazing opportunities. I personally interviewed most presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012 – how many college students can say that? After the shenanigans – also known as hissy fits – that particular staff threw, the direct access to high-level officials has been removed – as are some of those real-world experiences, unfortunately. My hope is that the up and coming class of Champion students can rebuild the trust that was once there.

Liberty provides opportunities. Liberty has always offered students as many opportunities as possible. What students make of that is up to them. What I can tell you is that in my personal opinion, Will’s actions were childish – the millennial behavior that so many expect and disdain. Instead of working with the administration to find a compromise, he went rogue. Last time I checked, if I went rogue at my job, I’d be fired. Mrs. Huff always believed in her students and always encouraged them to take any opportunity given to them. She let them take the reins when it came to story ideation and creation, but she challenged them to think how it would be perceived at a higher level.

In my experience, Liberty University promotes a culture of learning and opportunity – not of fear. The university encourages students to think critically and employ the skills they have learned – that doesn’t give students the right to go rogue and expect for there not to be consequences. Liberty University, and specifically Mrs. Huff, taught me to fight for what I believe in, but to do it in a way that would be effective. I will forever be grateful for my experiences at Liberty University and am proud to be a Champion for Christ.

Introduction to Series: When Freedom is not Free: Viewpoints on Student Media Controls on Christian CampusesMichael Longinow
With press freedom comes much responsibilityAlan Blanchard
Courageous Advising: A Free Press is Challenging but Do-ableCassidy Grom
Nationally Accredited Journalism Programs and Faith-Based Mission: Not Antithetical, Much Needed in Today’s Media WorldDoug Mendenhall
True liberty means press liberty: Let the students reportPaul Glader
Christian Journalism & Privacy LawsTerry Mattingly
Liberty & JournalismMichael Longinow
Mr. Falwell’s FollyTimothy C. Morgan
Liberty CensorshipDonna J. Downs
Inside Liberty’s Culture of Learning: An Opportunity to ExcelAmanda Sullivan Sokolik