Institutions of higher learning are expected to promote free speech and the discussion of ideas from all viewpoints. This is what helps colleges and universities prepare students for life in a diverse community. It is also one of the foundations for exempting them from income taxation and affording them substantial funding by way of tuition assistance. Unfortunately, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, does not appear to believe in this; certainly, he does not practice it.
Falwell has come under widespread criticism for reopening his campus when other colleges and universities have heeded the warnings about COVID-19. He insisted on all 5,000 members of the student community to return to their dorms; further, faculty were also asked to return to campus unless they had what the university considered a valid health exemption.
Despite concerns raised by students, parents, and other Lynchburg residents, Falwell has said that students were not at risk for developing the virus.
Two national journalists had the temerity to come to campus to investigate. According to The New York Times, nearly a dozen Liberty students were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, citing “the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service,” who said three students so far had been tested for coronavirus, with at least one student, who lives off campus, testing positive.
Two national journalists visited the campus to investigate and inquire about student views. According to The New York Times, nearly a dozen Liberty students were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, citing “the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service,” who said three students so far had been tested for coronavirus, with at least one student, who lives off campus, testing positive. (The physician now denies having said this.) More students were self-quarantining, the Times reported, a move caused, Falwell said, by where they had spent spring break. [Emphasis added.] More recently, two campus employees were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Liberty is pursuing a criminal case against the journalists, who the school alleges made unauthorized campus visits last month while covering its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Law enforcement officials at Liberty have obtained warrants charging a freelance photographer for The New York Times and a reporter for ProPublica with misdemeanor trespassing. HuffPost cited a New York Times report that Falwell left a phone message for one reporter, “You’re in some serious trouble.”
It is unclear when or if Liberty will execute the warrants, which in practice amount to serving a court summons. The school did not contact Lynchburg’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office before asking a magistrate to approve the charges; prosecutors have not decided whether to pursue the case. No charges have been formally filed in court. Perhaps Liberty was just interested in publicity?
“I don’t think God wants Christians to sit back and not protect what they believe in.”
“It’s going to be an ugly legal fight, I’m sorry to say,” bragged Falwell. “But I feel like they’ve forced us into a corner and I don’t think God wants Christians to sit back and not protect what they believe in.” Ah, the religious-persecution card. The poor Christians can’t practice in the way God wants. Is God against protecting public health? Is God against free speech?
Liberty has in the past attempted to censor student journalists, muzzling them in increasing severity in recent years. Beginning in 2016, Falwell started vetting articles for the student newspaper, the Champion, nixing those that criticized Donald Trump. On one occasion, he made Champion editors end opinion pieces with a note on how they were voting. Some refused–which was noted in the articles. A story about Liberty’s policy toward unmarried women who lived in the dorms and became pregnant was spiked.
The dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content told 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?” The top editors were eventually fired, and several other staffers quit.
Ironically, Falwell was an outspoken supporter of Trump’s recent edict aimed at ensuring free speech at colleges and universities. Designed to protect conservative students who claim their rights to speak out have been shut down at liberal institutions, Trump’s ruling denies federal research funding to schools found to be guilty of this. (Liberty has no federal research grants, but does receive state and federal funding assistance.) The university had no comment on this apparent contradiction.
The Washington Post recently editorialized on these matters, calling the school’s actions “shameful.”
The Washington Post recently editorialized on these matters, calling the school’s actions “shameful.” It went on, “Authoritarians long ago discovered one way to help maintain control and power is to go after journalists who uncover uncomfortable truths and keep the public informed…. It is more than a little jarring to see this tactic of criminalizing journalism being employed in the United States — and by a university whose name celebrates American freedom.”
Liberty? In name only.