The Campus Free Speech Problem Trump Doesn't Talk About

Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., among the most vocal supporters of the president's executive order, criticized for censorship of student journalists on his campus.

March 25, 2019
 
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President Trump and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.

When President Trump issued an executive order last week dealing with campus free speech, he was joined by conservative students who complained their rights had been trampled by liberal censorship.

One of the earliest backers of the Trump executive order was Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., who has frequently called out the alleged "silencing" of conservative college students.

“The president is right to stop our government from handing out taxpayer dollars to subsidize institutions that practice censorship -- regardless of whether that censorship is used against those on the left or the right,” he wrote in a Fox News opinion column earlier this month.

No college president is more closely identified with the president than Falwell, who invited Trump to give a 2017 commencement address at Liberty and has frequently attacked the president’s critics in the media and on Twitter. He’s also claimed unique credentials on campus speech, having declared in the past that Liberty promotes free expression “unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.”

But the university has been repeatedly taken to task by civil libertarians in recent years for censorship of student journalists and speakers on its campus.

It’s not clear that the executive order will actually endanger federal research funds for colleges and universities that fail to protect free speech. And it states only that religious private colleges like Liberty must comply with their stated institutional policies on campus speech. However, despite Falwell's boasts about the freedoms at Liberty, the complaints about the university show that -- contrary to many statements from President Trump -- censorship isn’t just an issue affecting conservative speakers on largely liberal campuses.

Among the incidents of alleged censorship that have become public, Falwell instructed the editor of Liberty Champion, the campus newspaper, in October 2016 to spike a column critical of then-candidate Trump after a leaked recording from Access Hollywood in which he is heard bragging about assaulting women.

In October 2017 and again the following year, Falwell and faculty members pressured student journalists not to cover a gathering of a progressive evangelical Christian group in Lynchburg, Va., where Liberty is located.

In an April 2018 meeting with Champion staffers, Bruce Kirk, Liberty’s dean of the school of communication and digital content, told Champion staffers their job was “to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is … Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK?”

World magazine released an article in August 2018 detailing those and other instances of alleged censorship on the Liberty campus.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that advocates for free speech on campuses, urged Falwell in a letter shortly afterward to reconcile the university’s actual policies and practices with his stated commitment to free expression.

“I think Falwell Jr.’s statements about his commitment to freedom of expression would be more well received if he didn’t have a history of engaging in a campaign of press censorship on his campus,” said Sarah McLaughlin, a senior program officer for legal and public advocacy at FIRE, and the author of the letter.

In February, FIRE listed Liberty in its annual list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.

A spokeswoman for Liberty said the university would pass on commenting for this story.

Complaints about censorship at Liberty go back even further. In 2009, Liberty de-recognized the College Democrats chapter on campus. But FIRE found that, according to the institutional policies published at the time, respect for free expression did not appear to be among the chief values it professed. There was no mention of free speech or free association among the 10 "distinctive" attributes of Liberty published on its website at the time, the organization found.

Although Liberty does not rank among the top universities for federal research grants, which the executive order addresses directly, it ranked sixth last year for total federal student aid it received. The order does not affect federal student aid.

The extent to which censorship is an ongoing issue on the campus is difficult to track in part because the university requires student journalists to sign nondisclosure agreements. That means their ability to continue their education could be affected by complaining to outside groups.

According to the executive order signed by President Trump -- the first in what he said would be “a series of steps” to protect students' rights -- public institutions must uphold the First Amendment while private colleges like Liberty must comply with their stated institutional principles on free speech. Liberty’s institutional policies, which were previously available online in its student handbook, are now password protected on its website.

It’s unclear if the executive order, which provided few details on how it would be implemented, will push more private colleges to disclose those policies. FIRE has called out those colleges that choose not to make them public.

“Generally, our stance is that schools should make these handbooks and any policies public so students can know what kind of campus they’re agreeing to go to before they actually attend,” McLaughlin said.

Because of the lack of transparency at the campus, it’s difficult to say whether censorship has gotten worse in recent years, McLaughlin said.

“I can say that over the past two years it appears to have been a sustained campaign of censorship,” she said.

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