By Timothy C. Morgan

Has Jerry Falwell Jr. become dictator at Liberty University, often described as the “largest Christian university in the world”?

On Sept. 13, a handful of Liberty University students joined a rare on-campus protest of President Falwell’s offensive language and questionable administrative actions. The protest came in the wake of a major article in Politico, the online politics site and magazine, which alleged the university had a “culture of fear” and had become a “dictatorship” under Falwell, who took over after his famous father, the university’s cofounder, died in his office in May 2007.

A leader of the student protest told Religion News Service, the goal of the protest was to “bring to light the truth of these allegations of various misconduct.” These misconduct allegations concern Falwell’s rude email messages, leaked to Reuters, in which individuals were labeled “physically retarded,” a “half-wit,” or “social misfits.” Protestors also questioned certain real estate deals and pattern of censorship of the Liberty Champion, the student newspaper. The Vox has pulled together a useful overview, published Sept 13.

But censorship is the 800-pound gorilla here and it poses a great potential to harm the mission and purpose of Christian higher education at Liberty. What a weird and ironic moment for a school named for one of our highest virtues (liberty) to now be credibly accused of becoming a dictatorship.

“Falwell isn’t an evangelical leader,” writes Kylee McGhee in the Washington Examiner. He’s not even a good university president. He’s a shoddy example of what it means to be an educator, and more important, what it means to be a Christian: a faithful Christian dedicated not to personal gain, but to a life of faith that will inevitably require sacrifice and humility. Falwell is a fraud. And the university would be better off without him.”

Toxic Trifecta: President, Publisher, EIC

If there is something to learn from Falwell’s censorship folly, it is this. Don’t obliterate the boundary lines delineating the roles of a university president, publisher/owner of the school newspaper, and editor-in-chief (which rightly belongs to a student).

Liberty’s underlying problem is the chokehold on student media and speech. Falwell has set up a system in which he is the only one on campus whose speech is protected.In recent years, Falwell said more people should carry concealed firearms to thwart violence by Muslims. He commented that there is nothing President Trump could do to endanger Falwell’s support. He is all but untouchable when it comes to his own speech.

By comparison, student journalists at Liberty Champion, the school’s weekly newspaper, are subject to the extreme control by Falwell, who serves as university chief executive, publisher, and functionally editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. (This academic year, the Champion does list a student editor-in-chief.)

This is a “do as you are told” environment, not one in which students learn how to uncover the truth and report it without fear or favor. It’s part of a larger picture of 1984-style thought control that landed Liberty on the “Ten Worst Schools for Free Speech,” an annual list put out by FIRE, a nonprofit that seeks to protect basic rights of students and faculty on campus.

In a 2018 Newsmax article defending himself, Falwell wrote, “I have approved op-ed debates on both sides of highly controversial issues such as abortion and gay marriage. And I have insisted at least one op-ed on behalf of each candidate in every major election would be published.”

His solution has become the problem. When he calls the shots (even if it is only a handful each year), students are deprived of a chance to use the critical thinking skills that they gained in the classroom. They won’t learn from their own mistakes or the mistakes of others. It’s counter-productive in the extreme.

Falwell wrote, “My only goal in the recent restructuring was to take me out of the mix and instead delegate all editorial decisions to a faculty member. Over the past 10 years, I have only been asked to weigh in on a handful of editorial decisions anyhow. But each time, the press covers 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.”

Falwell’s authoritarian control is unsustainable and the longer it continues the greater the harm will be on the university’s mission. Truly independent checks and balances on institutional power are all but non-existent. Stories get spiked and student hopes and dreams for a career in journalism remain beyond their grasp.

Censorship Regime?

In a July 2019 Washington Post article, former Liberty Champion editor in chief Will E. Young pens a heartbreaking narrative of how Falwell silences students, faculty, and others who reject his pro-Trump stance in what Young calls a “censorship regime” and a “culture of fear.”

“What my team and I experienced at the Champion,” Will writes, “was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life.”

I have no reason to doubt Will’s insider point of view. But it does reveal Falwell’s failure to allow Liberty undergraduates one of the most needed and important things in higher education: How to speak truth to power.

Tragically, we live in a time when institutions of the state, church, and business are failing individuals and the society at large. Independent investigative journalists, whistle-blowers, plaintiff attorneys, and judges are never more needed to expose wrong-doing in the corridors of power.

If student journalists and others as undergraduates do not acquire a capacity to speak truth to power before they graduate, they are less likely during their careers to seek truth and work toward a more just society at all levels. The censorship regime at Liberty ultimately is self-defeating. This is higher education, badly administered.

For Liberty University and other Christian schools, the way forward is not to use the student press to prop up and polish the institutional self-image or its president. Rather it is to instruct student journalists in accountability, accuracy, peer review, truth-telling, independence, and all of the hallmarks of extreme excellence in journalism. This is the learning environment, I believe, would produce “champions for Christ,” not champions for Liberty University.

Unless Falwell gives up more of his power over others and learns to stop talking like a pirate, Liberty will look less and less like a university and more like a regime.

Timothy C. Morgan is a member of the EPA, SPJ, and RNA. He is a journalist, journalism judge, and journalism certificate director at Wheaton College (Illinois). This opinion article is not intended to reflect the views of any institution with which the author is associated.

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