October 20, 2016
Trump-supporting university president loves free speech, promptly censors an anti-Trump student
by Chad Felix
You may have read recently about Liberty University students’ response to university president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Falwell’s contentious discipleship has survived even the release of the release of the unanimously damning Access Hollywood video in which Trump boasts to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women, and the stories of women being sexually assaulted by Trump that came in its wake.
The statement, which hit headlines on October 13th, made it clear to the world that the students of the private university, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, would not take Falwell’s endorsement idly. Sternly and clearly worded, the message contends that the racist, misogynistic Trump, a bad businessperson and bad person, is very unpopular at Liberty. According to the statement, only ninety students (of around 15,000) voted for the Republican candidate in the primary. The students do not appreciate their president acting as a Trump surrogate, using the power of his office and title to promote the nominee’s God-defying racism and misogyny.
Now, to be perfectly clear, Falwell’s endorsement of Trump is not technically an endorsement by Liberty University. Falwell does not have that power. But as the students note, “In the months since Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed him, Donald Trump has been inexorably associated with Liberty University.” They also write, “President Falwell eagerly uses his national platform to advocate for Donald Trump” because “he knows it is his title of president of the largest Christian university in the world that gives him political credentials.”
“We don’t want to champion Donald Trump,” the students conclude, “we want only to be champions for Christ.”
Falwell’s own response came shortly after —and it tells a very different story. While Falwell is “proud” of the students who dislike Trump and are exercising free speech by speaking out against Falwell’s endorsement, he does take issue with the depiction of the politically-minded students at Liberty, who, he claims, totally love Mike Pence:
First, the statement claims that a “majority” of Liberty faculty, staff and students are not supporting Donald Trump. It is true that Donald Trump lost in the Virginia primary at Liberty’s precinct when there were many Republican candidates still in the race but, when Mike Pence spoke to many thousands of students at Liberty yesterday, he was applauded when he spoke of the importance of supporting Donald Trump for president. In fact, he received five standing ovations during his speech. The group of students now speaking out against Trump represents a very small percentage of the Liberty student body of 15,000 resident students and 90,000 online students. The group (led by a never Trump activist, I am told) claims to have between 200 and 1200 signatures on a petition but admits that many of these signatories are not Liberty students.
Okay, fine, sure. I mean, who knows. In any event, it’s good to have values. And to stand up for them. Yes, what’s important here is the respect for free speech; or, as Falwell puts it, “the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.”
Well, godammit, Falwell. As Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik reports, that unalienable right to free speech may not be extended to those at Liberty who happen to harbor a differing opinion than that of the university president: “Despite the rhetoric, the university prevented Joel Schmieg, the sports editor of its student newspaper, The Liberty Champion, from running a column criticizing Trump.” Jaschik continues:
A spokesman for Liberty, Len Stevens, reached at home Tuesday night, said he heard about the controversy when President Falwell shared with him texts the president exchanged with his son Trey (as Jerry Falwell III is known). The texts confirmed that the university prevented the column from being published, but did not indicate that President Falwell was involved directly, said Stevens. Stevens said that Schmieg’s column was “redundant” with another piece and was blocked because of space constraints, as an “editorial decision.” Stevens did not respond to questions about how blocking a column critical of Trump might not be consistent with President Falwell’s statements about free expression.
Later, in this Twitter thread, Falwell himself implied that he did in fact have something to do with the column being pulled.
@Sandi simple, if I see redundant columns, I cut one. Why repeat the same thoughts twice at school expense? Good night.
— J L Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) October 19, 2016
Schmieg, who obviously took his column on the subject of Trump’s predatory “locker room talk” to Facebook after it was pulled, told Inside Higher Ed that he has a regular column at the Liberty Champion; in other words, “It’s not an issue of space.”
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.