‘The Liberty Way’

A lawsuit alleges that the evangelical Christian university has created policies that dissuade students from reporting sexual violence and punish those who do.

November 19, 2021
 
Kendall Warner/The News & Advance
A Nov. 4 rally at Liberty University called for an investigation into Liberty University’s handling of sexual assault.

Liberty University is facing heavy scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault.

A dozen former Liberty students and employees sued the university in July, alleging that the evangelical Christian university in Virginia “has intentionally created a campus environment where sexual assaults and rapes are foreseeably more likely to occur than they would in the absence of Liberty policies.”

The lawsuit focuses largely on the “weaponization” of Liberty’s strict code of conduct, known as “the Liberty Way,” which, the lawsuit says, makes it “difficult or impossible for students to report sexual violence.” Under the Liberty Way, spending a night with a member of the opposite sex or consuming alcoholic beverages are both offenses punishable by fines, community service and potentially expulsion. While Liberty offered some promises of amnesty for students reporting sexual assaults, the suit alleges that the amnesty policy was incomplete and confusing and in practice unevenly applied.

As a result, the lawsuit filed by the women, identified as Jane Does 1 through 12, alleges some students, including certain plaintiffs, who reported being assaulted to the university “were urged to withdraw those reports because they involved admitted violations of the Liberty Way.”

Some of the plaintiffs say they were actually punished for violations of the Liberty Way.

One of the plaintiffs, who reports being drugged and raped by her boyfriend, says that upon her release from the hospital, Liberty proffered counseling, which she understood to be an opportunity to discuss her rape. “Instead, she was confronted by Liberty for drinking and fined $500,” the suit says.

Another plaintiff says that her roommates reported her to Liberty’s student conduct office after she was raped by her boyfriend.

“Although Doe 10 attempted to make clear that she was the victim of a rape, Liberty University’s Student Conduct Office gave her no opportunity to do so and, instead, forced her to sit with her rapist and apologize to her roommates for her violation of the Liberty Way,” the suit alleges.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jack Larkin, said the women want an overhaul of Liberty’s policies and procedures. He said the university has asked to mediate a settlement, but he added that in the event negotiations break down, he is prepared to file an amended complaint adding 10 more plaintiffs, including two students who were victims of sexual assault last spring.

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The experiences of the women have been featured in investigations by the podcast Gangster Capitalism and, more recently, the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica.

Two of the women spoke under their real names to Inside Edition last week.

“For many years they’ve been sweeping things under the rug,” Heather Wendel, also known as Jane Doe No. 13, said to the newsmagazine. “Now we’re lifting that rug up and seeing how much dirt and disgusting is beneath it.”

Earlier this week, a production company, Talos Films, announced plans for a new nonfiction series, The Liberty University Project, documenting the women’s legal fight.

Apart from the Does v. Liberty suit, Liberty’s former spokesman Scott Lamb filed suit alleging he was terminated in retaliation for his opposition to the university’s mishandling of Title IX sexual misconduct allegations.

The university has countersued for defamation and breach of contract, among other claims, and maintains Lamb was fired “because he was insubordinate, failed to obtain requisite expense approvals, and failed to conduct the business affairs of his department to the standards set by Liberty.”

A Liberty spokesman declined requests for an interview, but officials have made a series of public statements in recent weeks speaking generally to these issues.

“The allegations in the Jane Doe 1-12 v. Liberty University lawsuit are deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true,” Jerry Prevo, the president, said in an Oct. 26 message to the Liberty community in which he promised to look into the claims “to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true.”

“Many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years,” Prevo wrote. “Liberty has invested mightily in programs and personnel to help maintain a safe campus and to support any and all victims of sexual assault that came forward. Liberty has a robust non-discrimination policy, which includes an amnesty policy to encourage victims to make reports without fearing that their involvement in other activities like drinking alcohol or extramarital sex will be disciplined under the student honor code.”

Prevo, who assumed Liberty’s presidency last year after the former president Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned amid allegations of sexual improprieties, further addressed the issue of amnesty during a Nov. 3 convocation, saying that students should not be afraid of being disciplined for violations of the Liberty Way if they come forward with “a legitimate complaint” of sexual assault or harassment that occurred during the course of those violations.

“We do not want you to be afraid to come forward thinking that you’re going to have to give an account of what you were doing when that happened,” Prevo told the students assembled for the convocation. “We want to know that it happened. We want you to know that you can come and you’ll not be disciplined for that. So, let me just say this: if you’re doing something wrong, don’t claim that something happened to you that was false -- all right?”

Liberty has also announced plans to install up to 1,000 security cameras and emergency “blue light” call boxes on the campus, at a cost of about $8.5 million. The university’s Board of Trustees has also authorized “an independent and comprehensive review” of its policies and processes under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in higher education.

Advocates for sexual assault survivors say these steps do not go far enough. Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and advocate for victims of sexual abuse who spoke at a recent rally on Liberty’s campus, said the Title IX review was explicitly not what was asked for.

“I specifically strongly recommended against taking that step because I was concerned that was exactly what Liberty was going to do,” said Denhollander, who met privately with Prevo during her visit to Liberty. “There are allegations of Title IX policy breaches at Liberty, and I think those are serious and need to be addressed, but the vast majority of concerns are not necessarily breaches of Title IX policies. The vast majority of the concern and what’s been expressed is what happened when they reported to professors and administration. It’s been concerns about a culture of silencing at Liberty, a culture that does not allow for students or for leaders to express concerns about what’s happening in the university, and resistance to reforms.

“What you need to do,” Denhollander said, “is a comprehensive cultural analysis, a structural analysis and then historical accountability for how leadership at Liberty University has resisted reforms, created cultures where students are not able to speak up and engaged in teaching or practices that discourage speaking up or mischaracterize abuse.”

Even as far as what Liberty has committed to, Denhollander added, “there’s no commitment to any kind of public report. There’s no discussion as to whether investigators are going to have full access to all of the information.”

A student group called Justice for Janes has been campaigning for reforms including an independent audit, the installation of emergency call boxes and a universal amnesty policy.

“Our campaign is definitely very happy that President Prevo has been taking our demands more seriously,” said Josie Young, a spokesperson for the group and a senior at Liberty. “The [plans to install the] blue call boxes and the reaffirmation of the amnesty policies just means that our voices are being heard, that they’re taking our demands seriously and they’re taking campus safety seriously.

“However, we don’t want to let the small victories appease us,” Young continued. “There’s still no transparency—they haven’t told us what they plan on doing with the information they’re going to get—and they’re focused solely on the Title IX cases. It’s clear they are trying to appease us, but we know that we cannot just accept this and call it our victory.”

Virginia’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats, have also called on the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to open an investigation following the publication of ProPublica’s investigation.

“Any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong,” Senator Tim Kaine said in a statement. “Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously. My office is urging the Department of Education to investigate these claims against Liberty and take appropriate action.”

Senator Mark Warner called on Liberty’s leadership to “act expeditiously to prioritize the needs of survivors, comply with federal law by notifying survivors of their option to contact law enforcement, and ensure a campus culture that supports and defends every student’s basic right to a safe environment.

“While Liberty should act immediately to remedy the issues alleged in the [ProPublica] report, it would also be appropriate for the Office [for] Civil Rights at the Department of Education to look into Liberty’s procedures for dealing with sexual assault cases,” Warner said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Education Department said the department’s Office for Civil Rights is unable to confirm the receipt of any particular complaint. The department updates its list of open investigations monthly.

Liberty, which has close ties to many Republican leaders, including former president Trump, suggested in a statement that political factors might be at play in the two Virginia senators’ concerns.

“Liberty University has been very clear about how seriously it is taking the allegations made in the Jane Doe lawsuit, but these allegations, some 20 years old, should not give the misimpression that Liberty University isn’t fully compliant with all laws with regard to its Title IX policies and procedures today,” a Liberty spokesman said. “Nonetheless, the university is conducting an independent review of its processes to determine if any policies or procedures need to be modified. The university extends an invitation to Virginia senators Kaine and Warner to visit the campus when it’s convenient to discuss their concerns with our executive leadership. We hope the senators’ comments do not represent an unhelpful politicization of such a serious issue.”

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