Jerry Falwell's Systematic Censorship at Liberty University Is Shocking—and Bound to Backfire | Opinion

Liberty University has become an embarrassment to Christian college journalism programs everywhere. Reports in World magazine and The Washington Post have exposed how the school, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr., strictly and systematically censors its student journalists.

"We encountered an 'oversight system'—read: a censorship regime—that required us to send every story to Falwell's assistant for review," a former student at Liberty wrote for the Post this summer.

We can't blame the students, who are attending the school hoping to learn and do journalism. We can't fully blame the faculty, who are trying to do their job and provide for their families. One has to blame the leadership of that university, who created such a dishonest climate for journalism education.

World reported that Falwell told the newspaper's staff in 2016 it was "established to champion the interests of the university, disseminate information about happenings on Liberty's campus, as well as the positive impacts of Liberty in the community and beyond." The university administration sees itself as a publisher with rights to oversee editorial decisions and censor content, according to the article. "We're going to have to be stricter in the future if these protocols aren't followed," Falwell reportedly told the staff.

"University president Jerry Falwell Jr. is trying to turn the journalism program and the Champion, the campus newspaper, into a public relations training department," noted blogger and author Rod Dreher, commenting on the World article.

Dreher is correct. Liberty's student newspaper is engaging in public relations, not independent journalism. One can argue that every publication is subject to the influence or control of its owner, shareholders or advertisers. While that's often true, it's also true that Liberty's approach to its student newspaper is lousy journalism and thin-skinned administration.

The British journalist and Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge once said, "News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations."

Are we seeing a larger movement toward censorship and control of media, as nationalism and authoritarianism temporarily march through the world, putting the rise of democracy in a holding pattern?

We can't let that happen. Christian colleges should take the lead in advocating for free speech and freedom of the press on their campuses and in public life. They should oppose autocratic control of the student press and mainstream press. If a Christian college in America offers a journalism major, it must commit to teaching real journalism and allowing student journalists to do their jobs. That means trusting the adviser to guide the students. It means tolerating stories that occasionally ruffle feathers or even rock the campus.

Certainly, advisers and journalism professors have a tough job. We often must show students when an opinion piece is slanderous or poorly aimed. We have to encourage fact-based reporting, rather than whining and opining. And with fact-based reporting, we have to demand thoroughness, depth and high ethical standards. We need to teach students how to practice "slow journalism" and wise journalism in an era of fast and, occasionally, loose journalism. And at Christian colleges, we also care for the souls of the students and want to encourage them to think as Christians as they approach news and information.

That's hard work. But it's much better for the institution than the alternative. What happens when a college president has a dictatorial bent? What happens when he or she attempts to intimidate or muzzle the campus press?

  • The word spreads about the president's behavior and the institution's approach (case study: Liberty) and bad public relations follows, damaging the school's brand.
  • Good faculty depart.
  • Smart parents and students choose other colleges.
  • Employers are wary of hiring students from such a school.
  • Students who are unaware of the fraudulent program arrive on campus and become disillusioned. The enterprising ones open their own independent press on a website, Facebook page or Twitter feed. Authoritarians cannot block speech, facts or truth.
Jerry Falwell
Jerry Falwell, president of Liberty University, speaks during a commencement on May 13, 2017, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty

It's a bad testimony if presidents of Christian schools are hypersensitive, media illiterate and believe the press on their campus should function like the press in Venezuela. Christian colleges need to champion the educational value of journalism programs and a robust student press. Student-run news outlets at Christian schools should consider whether they need to push for more independence from the school. (At the King's College, where I work, the student news outlet, The Empire State Tribune, is independent, with outside funding in addition to funding from the school.)

Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel, in his essays and plays, taught his fellow citizens how to "live in truth" even while living under an oppressive communist regime. He was put in jail for that. But when the authoritarian regime fell, he was made president of the Czech Republic.

Christians colleges shouldn't be in the business of creating dissident students and faculty. They should practice living in truth.

Paul Glader is an associate professor of journalism at the King's College in New York City and executive editor of ReligionUnplugged.com. Follow him on Twitter @PaulGlader.

Jerry Falwell's Systematic Censorship at Liberty University Is Shocking—and Bound to Backfire | Opinion | Opinion