It was a way to mix Christianity with social justice — basically the opposite of the evangelicals who work with Donald Trump. Claiborne had extended an invitation to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., since the event was in his home town, but Falwell responded with a letter threatening to arrest him if he dared to even set foot on campus. Just like Jesus would.
So Claiborne’s group didn’t appear on campus, but several Liberty University students attended the gathering. That’s why Erin Covey, a student journalist with the school’s newspaper, received permission from her editors to cover the event for the Liberty Champion. Since Falwell had now become part of the story, she reached out to him for comment on Thursday (before the two-day event began).
According to Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service, Falwell responded to her with a request to kill the story completely.
… A screenshot of his email to her was shown to Religion News Service with the sender’s name and email address cropped out. It said: “No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.”
Covey said she responded with another email, arguing that national publications would likely cover the event (Religion News Service, The New York Times, NPR and others sent reporters) and asking if the paper could still cover the event and include his input. Falwell, she said, did not reply.
So a story involving Falwell, in Lynchburg, that some Liberty students were going to participate in was somehow not newsworthy?
If that doesn’t meet the criteria for a campus newspaper, what does?!
Covey told Jenkins that, yes, she considered that censorship.
“I do think that currently the level of oversight we have does make it difficult to pursue the accurate journalism that we’re taught in classes,” said the 20-year-old editor, who is pursuing a degree in journalism at Liberty, one of the largest evangelical universities in the nation.
She’s right. And it’s disappointing that the students are trying to do the right thing — the professional thing — but they’re being stifled by their own school’s president.
It’s not even the first time Falwell has been on the opposite side of his own students. Before the 2016 elections, Falwell killed an article that denounced Trump. That article was later published in secular media. In 2009, Falwell revoked the status of a campus Young Democrats club (which was already “pro-life” and opposed to marriage equality) because they were ostensibly supporting candidates whose views were “contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine.”
This isn’t a First Amendment issue because it’s a private school and Falwell is free to run it as a dictator. But it also sends a message to Liberty students — not all of whom share every one of his political and social views — that straying from the school’s dogma is a problem. Thinking critically will be punished. Using a campus resource to express dissent will be squelched. And presenting an alternative perspective, even from an objective point of view, will not be tolerated.
I know some of those students don’t always have the option to go to another school due to family pressure or financial concerns, or they go there because they genuinely believe it’s the best way to pursue their interests without giving up their faith, but I hope they realize this isn’t what a real place of higher education looks like.
College is supposed to be a place where your beliefs are challenged, not coddled, and Falwell is doing everything he can to make sure the students never learn about the world outside his bubble.