In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize.
I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university police forces did, so I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions.
Huff assured the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again.
This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr., meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I was naive.
Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review. Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content.
What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. By 2016, Liberty’s efforts to limit free expression were already well-established. But the school’s methods became even more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Donald Trump early that year, according to multiple current and former faculty members. “The closer you get to the president’s office,” says former history professor Brian Melton, “the worse it becomes.”
The dissent that did exist was ruthlessly neutralized. Liberty, founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.
Falwell, 57, possesses a certain Orwellian gift for painting Liberty as a bastion of tolerance where alternate viewpoints are not just permitted but encouraged. In March, he attended the signing of Trump’s executive order on college free speech and later claimed on “PBS NewsHour” that Liberty was inclusive of all ideas because it had invited Jimmy Carter to deliver its 2018 commencement address and Bernie Sanders to speak in 2015.
His Twitter account is a much better reflection of his approach to dissent. Falwell’s profile announces that “Haters will be blocked,” and several students who have disagreed or argued with him on Twitter have met this fate. Falwell outright lied on the platform to Sojourners Web editor Sandi Villarreal —who is now my colleague — when he said he’d removed a Champion op-ed criticizing Trump’s “locker room talk” defense because there was simply not enough room on the page. (The piece was already laid out on the page when he pulled it.)
Even ‘royalty’ was at risk
Mark DeMoss was something like Liberty royalty. His late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, gave $20 million to build DeMoss Hall, the school’s main academic building. Mark was also an alumnus, a former chief of staff to university founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and eventually a public relations executive who counted Liberty among his clients. He won a seat on the school’s board of trustees in 1991 after serving as Liberty’s spokesman and became the board’s executive committee chairman in 2008.
In January 2016, days before Trump was scheduled to speak at Liberty, Falwell emailed DeMoss asking whether he should endorse Trump for president. DeMoss says he recommended against endorsing anyone, and Falwell thanked him for the “great advice.” Falwell, at the speech, held back his imprimatur. But a week later, he anointed the billionaire with his support.
DeMoss was horrified. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Falwell seemed to take the rebuke in stride, saying he was “disappointed” in DeMoss but understood “that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views.”
Within a few months, though, DeMoss would be gone. The night before a Liberty board meeting that April, the executive committee, including Falwell, convened without DeMoss to vote on a motion to oust him as chairman. DeMoss resigned as a trustee days later, on April 25, 2016, citing “a lack of trust.”
A week after that, Liberty changed the sign on DeMoss Hall to “Arthur S. DeMoss Hall,” making clear that the structure honored the father and not the wayward son.
The Liberty Way
One cause of perpetual insecurity at Liberty is the school’s refusal to award tenure to any faculty member (outside the law school, which must offer it for accreditation). Instructors are instead hired on year-to-year contracts; during the spring semester, they find out whether they will be coming back the next fall.
The result is constant turnover. One recently fired teacher describes the spring as a cycle of stressed-out, fearful professors wandering into each other’s offices to ask if they had their contracts renewed yet. “If you’re a conservative Christian in the academic world, the chances of you getting a job are nil in many areas,” says Melton, who was an associate professor for 15 years at Liberty before resigning because of what he described as the school’s surveillance and fear tactics. “The administration knows that, and … they wield that very effectively, keeping people quiet.”
Last summer, 14 professors at Liberty’s School of Education were suddenly told that their contracts would not be renewed as part of what former Liberty spokesman Len Stevens called a “reorganization.” This June, a dozen faculty members at Liberty’s School of Divinity were notified that their contracts would not be renewed.
There is no evidence of Liberty firing a faculty member explicitly for his or her political beliefs, but everyone I spoke to believed that the school could easily manufacture some other pretense. FIRE, a nonprofit that fights for free speech on campus, put Liberty on its 2019 list of the 10 worst colleges for freedom of speech.
Things aren’t much better for the 15,000 students on campus. In 2009, Liberty withdrew funding and recognition for its College Democrats chapter because, as Mark Hine, the senior vice president of student affairs, put it, the national party defends abortion, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported “the ‘LGBT’ agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.” A.J. Strom, who graduated in May, tells me that several students wanted to revive the College Democrats but no faculty members were willing to advise them, without which Liberty will not recognize a student club. “They said they would love to sign on but that if Jerry saw their name on the club application, they would be fired,” Strom says.
Student leaders have consistently helped administrators enforce the culture. After the Charlottesville, Va., rally in August 2017, members of Liberty’s Student Government Association drafted a statement expressing solidarity with Heather Heyer, the protester murdered by a neo-Nazi, and all people demonstrating against white nationalism. Then-SGA President Caleb Johnson refused to release the statement and send it to university administrators for fear of what Falwell might think. (Johnson said in an email this past week that the author was “a self-described ‘Never-Trumper’” and that “we would not allow the platform of Liberty Student Government to be improperly used by a political activist with obvious ulterior motives.”) “There’s 100 percent an atmosphere of fear at Liberty,” says Caleb Fitzpatrick, who was then the student government’s speaker of the House and helped draft the statement. “There was a need to avoid being seen as a liberal or progressive, or even being different.”
In September 2018, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, Liberty invited conservative provocateur Candace Owens to speak at an assembly. A few days before her visit, Owens tweeted that the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault were “making it up.” In response, Addyson Garner, then president of a libertarian club on campus, organized a rally to support victims of sexual assault, after the Owens speech. The day before, Jacob Page, then the student body president, summoned her to his office, where he and Vice President Derek Rockey pressured her to cancel the event, Garner told me in May. She left the office in tears, but she and her fellow organizers decided to protest anyway. About 25 students attended, a rare show of defiance on a campus that discourages political dissent. (In an email Rockey said he thought students should attend a public dialogue on these topics rather than stage a protest. Page said he and Rockey “support bringing awareness to victims of sexual assault” but “felt it was unproductive to engage in partisan protests.”)
Guests at the school who deviate from the prescribed philosophy can be targeted, too. In October 2017, the anti-Trump pastor and writer Jonathan Martin arrived at the invitation of the Christian musical duo Johnnyswim, who were performing on campus that night; Martin also announced on Twitter that he would lead a prayer meeting with students the next morning. Falwell took it as an unauthorized protest, and the LUPD sent three armed officers to remove Martin from campus, telling him he’d be arrested if he returned. Martin tweeted that it was “evidently in response to my strong criticism of @JerryFallwellJr’s alignment not only with the darkest contours of Trumpism, but expressly with Steve Bannon & the alt-right he represents.” Falwell told the Champion that Martin’s forcible removal was “a matter of safety.”
Hands off ‘SG’
One afternoon in April 2016, when I was still a cub reporter during my sophomore year, I received a one-sentence email from Deborah Huff, our adviser: “need to talk to you about SG,” the subject line read. I should call her that night. I was clearly in trouble.
“SG” stood for Scott Garrett, a traditionalist conservative who represents Lynchburg in the state legislature. According to records I had found through the Virginia Public Access Project, he owned millions of dollars in stock, some from companies that lobby lawmakers in Richmond. A few days earlier, I interviewed him for the Champion about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his assets.
When I called Huff, she sounded annoyed. She told me the Champion would not run my story, because Garrett was afraid the article would hurt his reputation. The message was clear: I had no business heckling Liberty’s friends and allies. (“I don’t remember the incident in question,” Garrett emailed when I asked him for a comment. “And I don’t understand why I would say the article would hurt my reputation because there was no conflict of interest.”)
Out of fear that arguing with her would end my career at the paper — Huff selected which students would advance to editorships — I apologized for looking into Garrett’s finances.
Looking back three years later, I’m embarrassed by my naivete — and my willingness to abandon a scoop with obvious journalistic merit. The scales began to fall from my eyes as, over the next 18 months, I saw how in every issue of the Champion the administration strategically manipulated or erased stories. Huff discouraged us from following leads that might disrupt the image of Liberty. In pitch meetings, she made it clear that the Champion would not cover Liberty scandals, even those that appeared in mainstream news outlets (such as the Falwells’ secret business relationships and the wave of Liberty alumni who sent back their diplomas after Falwell defended Trump’s comment that there “very fine people” on both sides of the white nationalist Charlottesville rally).
From bad to worse
By the time I became the Champion’s editor, the censorship was shameless. When film students drafted a petition in early 2018 objecting to “The Trump Prophecy “ — a hagiographic tale about a firefighter who said he had prophesied Trump’s election, and which Liberty students were compelled to produce in order to receive their degrees — film school faculty crafted our coverage into a fluffy bit of PR highlighting students who looked forward to working on set.
Champion reporter Jack Panyard was so disgusted he removed his byline. Then there was sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column about “locker room talk” after the “Access Hollywood” video came out; Falwell blocked it from publication.
This interference frequently caused shouting matches with, and passive aggressive emails from administrators.
The end finally came for the Champion when a left-leaning faith group, the Red Letter Christians, organized a “Lynchburg Revival” in April 2018 to protest Falwell’s support of Trump. Two days beforehand, Liberty’s police department notified RLC leader Shane Claiborne that he would be arrested if he set foot on campus. The Champion had already decided to cover the event, but the stakes were higher now. Huff told us it would be too controversial for print, but the other editors and I didn’t think we could ignore it.
Beginning of the end
The day before the gathering, Falwell sent an email to Erin Covey, our assistant news editor: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” When we explained our dilemma to RLC organizers, they tipped off a reporter at the Religion News Service, which ran a piece detailing Falwell’s censorship. Covey gave on-the-record quotes. Panyard, who was set to succeed me as editor in chief in a few weeks, briefed the reporter on background, as did I.
The school’s response was swift. Falwell convened a tele-meeting with Bruce Kirk, who was then dean of the School of Communication, and our entire staff. They reprimanded us for talking to the press, and Falwell justified his censorship by arguing that the Red Letter Christians were “not keeping with the values of the university.”
Then he spoke candidly for the first time about, as he saw it, the virtues of censoring us. “That’s what you kids are going to run into when you get into the real world and start working for for-profit newspapers.”
Kirk agreed. Being censored by a higher-up in the media industry is “just a part of life,” he said. (Before he began at Liberty, he worked for a local news station operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.)
After the meeting, I felt sick. I hadn’t said a word while Falwell flayed us for trying to practice basic journalism. I went into my office, closed the door and waited until most of the staff members left the newsroom. Then I sat at my desk and wept.
A week and a half later, Kirk called Panyard and Covey into his office and told them they were being let go as part of a “reorganization.” I was not fired — I was a lame duck anyway — but I resigned. Soon after, I learned I would be the last student editor in chief of the Champion and that from now on the paper would be run directly by the school. (Kirk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.)
Even at Liberty, there are still those who publicly reject Falwell’s diktats. A petition supporting Mark DeMoss won more than 70 student signatures when Falwell ousted him in 2016. During the presidential election, free speech lived a little when Liberty United Against Trump, a student group, scored national media attention for its stance that the school did not uniformly approve of Falwell’s endorsement. It said it accumulated more than 2,000 student signatures for its statement. Panyard, the deposed editor, launched a new independent newspaper, the Lynchburg Torch. In the past year, it has published stories that the Champion’s overseers would have blocked, such as a report on LGBTQ students who oppose Liberty’s position on same-sex relationships. The school is changing.
But in significant ways, it is not. The students who recall a more open time at Liberty, before Trump, have now graduated. All who remain chose to go to Falwell’s school after he endorsed Trump, forming a much more compliant student body that generally accepts and even supports Falwell’s crackdown culture.
I graduated in 2018. Since then, I’ve tried to put Liberty behind me. But I still fume when Falwell spews dumbfounding conspiracies online or retweets a bigoted rant from Trump, and I still become uneasy when I see my diploma, which is sitting in a cluttered drawer at my parents’ house. I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought?
When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know.