First Amendment Organization Wants Liberty University To Stop Censoring Student Publications

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Zachery Schmidt Contributor
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An organization that defends student’s First Amendment rights is asking Liberty University to stop censoring its student press.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent the conservative school a letter on August 24, after the WORLD published an article detailing the school censoring its school newspaper, the Liberty Champion.

Previously, FIRE warned the school that its student newspaper was not a free press in 2016: “By openly prioritizing its religious mission over its commitment to students’ expressive rights, Liberty makes clear that students should not expect the same speech rights as students at public universities, which are bound by the First Amendment, or at private universities that are committed to free speech.”

Liberty University is a private school and doesn’t have to follow the same First Amendment standards as a public school, but this alleged treatment is the opposite of the school’s public commentary on free expression, according to the letter.

In 2016, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. issued a statement encouraging free speech ideas when a student group called “Liberty United Against Trump” came to campus.

“I am proud of these few students for speaking their minds,” he wrote. “It is a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas, unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.”

The alleged censorship incidents started at the time of this statement, and continued for almost two years, according to FIRE.

“While Liberty may have the right to subject Champion to this level of administrative control and censorship, there is no denying that these tools are so fundamentally at odds with freedom of expression that they are rarely encountered outside of military establishments and prisons.”

Between October 2016 and April 2018, incidents occurred involving students having their opinion pieces and articles changed or not published because the school didn’t approve of them. Falwell Jr. became so concerned with the paper staff’s article, he had a phone conference with them, according to the piece.

Falwell Jr. allegedly told the students in an April 18 phone call that the newspaper “had been established to champion the interests of the university, disseminate information about happenings on Liberty’s campus.”

Nine days later, Jack Paynard, editor-in-chief at the time, met with Liberty’s Dean of the School of Communication and Digital Content Bruce Kirk to talk about the paper’s reorganization. Kirk told Paynard, who he had appointed to editor-in-chief, that his services were no longer needed. Four other staff members resigned up Paynard no longer being there, according to the article.

Kirk allegedly told new staff members their job was not to destroy the school’s image and keep up its reputation, according to the article.

Liberty University Executive Director of External Communications Len Stevens directed the Daily Caller to the op-ed Falwell Jr. wrote when asked about the FIRE letter.

Falwell Jr. says the school supports the Champion, and Kirk did not speak for himself and not the school in the piece.

“Bruce Kirk — comments secretly recorded by a student this past spring and handed over to an evangelical news magazine — Mr. Kirk spoke for himself. He was not speaking as a spokesman for the university, nor as a spokesman for me.”

Currently, FIRE rates Liberty University’s free speech policies as a “warning,” according to the letter. The “warning” rating means the school does not promise free speech.