Liberty University accused of censoring its on-campus newspaper, The Liberty Champion
First posted November 15, 2019 4:20pm EST
Last updated September 30, 2020 3:12pm EDT
All Associated Themes:
- Professional Consequences
For years, The Liberty Champion has been subject to an increasingly rigorous censorship regime, reportedly instigated by University President Jerry Falwell Jr. This censorship has culminated in a strict, multistep editing process.
Jerry Falwell Jr. is president of Liberty University (LU), which was previously led by his evangelist father, and a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump. He has been accused of running the university in a dictatorial manner, including his reported censorship of The Liberty Champion, the school’s student-run newspaper.
Writers and editors for The Liberty Champion have cited numerous instances of their articles being censored. On April 27, 2018, the university instituted a new editing and approval process that required pieces to be reviewed by a faculty adviser, a faculty panel, and then, possibly, by Falwell himself, according to reports from World Magazine, a Christian publication.
Will Young was the editor-in-chief of The Champion and wrote an article for The Washington Post in July 2019 detailing ways in which Falwell edited articles or pulled stories altogether, often eliminating views he disagreed with.
As Trump consolidated his position as the Republican nominee for president in 2016, Falwell vocally embraced him, garnering national attention for becoming one of Trump’s strongest supporters. Later in 2016, Falwell began to review stories mentioning Trump before they were published in The Champion, and reports surfaced of censorship at LU being directly tied to Falwell’s political bias.
Falwell’s active role in the editing process manifested in October 2016, when Joel Schmieg, sports editor of The Champion, submitted an opinion column critical of the phrase “locker room talk,” which Trump had used to describe comments he made in 2005, captured in the so-called Access Hollywood tapes. Schmieg wrote on Facebook that Falwell had censored his article, according to Politico. Following the incident, Schmieg told World, he resigned. “I didn’t feel comfortable being told what I couldn’t write about by President Falwell,” he said.
Multiple other articles were spiked in the following months. In his Post piece, Young described an environment of increasing censorship and administrative control over the paper. In February 2017, he said, Falwell heavily edited a story that Young had drafted on a higher-education task force that Falwell had just been chosen by Trump to lead. The edits eliminated quotes from an expert discussing possible conflicts of interest posed by Falwell’s new role.
In spring 2018, The Champion reported on “The Trump Prophecy,” a film made in collaboration with LU’s cinematic arts department. The movie featured a dramatized depiction of an Orlando firefighter who claimed to have had a divinely inspired vision that Trump would become president. At the time it was submitted for review, the article questioned the main character’s descriptions of his discussions with God. But when the story was edited, these reservations were removed. Young, in his Post article, described the final piece as “a fluffy bit of PR.” The revisions were so extreme that one of the review’s authors removed his name from its byline.
Tensions between Champion writers and the university administration came to a head when the paper planned to cover the “Red Letter Revival,” an event organized by the Red Letter Christians. Although the group aims to be nonpartisan, it is widely seen as further left than the traditional evangelical movement. Writers for The Champion reached out to Falwell for comment on the story, but Falwell responded by telling the paper not to run any articles about the event, according to World.
Champion staff subsequently had a call with Falwell, who told them the paper was created to discuss the “positive impacts of Liberty in the community and beyond,” and that the university, as its publisher, is “responsible for content decisions” and for making “all of the calls on the articles, photographs, and other content.” Falwell ended the call by saying that the administration would have to be stricter if the students did not more closely adhere to established protocols.
Following these conversations, LU administration reorganized The Champion, eliminating the positions held by two staffers who wrote articles that had been spiked.
According to World, a university official told the paper’s new staff, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is. … Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be First Amendment.’ … So let’s get that notion out of your head.”
Liberty administration introduces new rules and regulations for Champion editing process and staff
The new guidelines subject all Champion articles to an editing process with as many as three stages. Stories may be edited by the faculty adviser before being sent to a panel of faculty members, the penultimate step before receiving final approval from Falwell himself. Only then can articles be published.
Students who receive scholarships for their work also must sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from being sources for outside news organizations and from commenting on social media about anything The Champion publishes.
Young writes article for The Washington Post detailing his experiences with censorship while editor-in-chief of The Champion
On July 24, 2019, Young published a sweeping article in The Post describing the draconian censorship LU had imposed on The Champion and its staff. He cited instances dating back to 2015.
Former Champion staffers create independent paper, The Lynchburg Torch
After losing his position as editor-in-chief of The Champion, Jack Panyard founded The Lynchburg Torch with four co-editors. The students launched the paper to cover incidents that were “ignored on campus,” reports The News and Advance. The Torch is student-run and operates independently of the university.