Free Speech

Jerry Falwell Jr. Has a Free Speech Problem

The Liberty University president thinks two reporters' coverage was unfair—so he wants them arrested.

|

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of the evangelical Liberty University, has long positioned himself as a torch-bearer of free expression. "Free speech and intellectual diversity are two of the most important pillars of a college education," he wrote last June. "That's why I urge every college and university in the country to encourage open political discourse on their own campuses—just as we do at Liberty University."

Falwell is now demanding the arrest of two reporters he accuses of painting his school in a negative light.

In an interview with radio host Todd Starnes, Falwell derided reporters at The New York Times and ProPublica for how they covered his decision to partially reopen Liberty amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Both pieces, he claimed, unfairly portrayed Liberty's attitude toward the coronavirus as flippant and careless. He singled out, for example, Times journalist Elizabeth Williamson's characterization of a conversation she had with local physician Thomas W. Eppes, Jr.: Williamson wrote that Eppes told her "nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19." Although one eventually tested positive, Falwell said the presumptive cases never numbered as high as 12—a depiction he cast as "sensational click-bait."

And so the university president secured arrest warrants for Times photographer Julia Rendleman and ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis for trespassing, a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. He told Starnes that an additional warrant is coming against someone affiliated with another "big time liberal news organization." (There is no warrant against Williamson because she did not take any photographs, so there's no physical proof that she was on campus.) Falwell also maintained that "lawsuits will be filed" against The New York Times if a retraction or Liberty-friendly correction isn't issued regarding the contagion numbers.

It's possible that Falwell is just trying to engage in some crisis PR. It's also possible that Williamson misunderstood or mischaracterized Eppes' comments. The veracity of the story isn't the point here. The point is Falwell's attempt to arrest people associated with reports he feels are biased against him—not the recourse you'd expect from someone who seriously sees his university as a bulwark of free expression.

"It is clear that Falwell is engaged in a campaign of petty retribution against journalists who write articles critical of the university," says Ari Cohn, a free speech lawyer and former director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). "But that's actually completely in line with Liberty University's faux concern for freedom of expression. Falwell's idea of freedom of expression on campus includes only expression that he approves of."

The trespassing charges aren't likely to hold up in court: The reporters involved were photographing a student who invited them to campus for an interview. But who really believes that the alleged trespassing is Falwell's concern here? He wants to intimidate people who criticize his school.

That same browbeating culture is alive and well within the institution's walls. Calum Best, the student interviewed by both The New York Times and ProPublica, described an angry phone call he received from Scott Lamb, the college's senior vice president for university communications, after he wrote a Facebook post arguing for tuition refunds amid COVID-19. Lamb included Best's work-study boss on the call.

"I thought I was in deep trouble for some professional failure," Best wrote on Medium. "But, as the call went on, I realized my boss had no need to be there, and had no connection to the matter at hand."

That heavy-handedness tracks with how Falwell and his associates oversee Champion, Liberty University's student paper. Will E. Young, the former editor-in-chief, wrote last year that Falwell actively got in the way of Trump-critical coverage, at one point removing a student op-ed lamenting Trump's Access Hollywood tape. The author of that erstwhile column, Joel Schmieg, took to Facebook to air the grievance and was promptly contacted by a faculty adviser, who reprimanded him for doing so. Schmieg then resigned.

As a private institution, Liberty University can set its own rules of conduct. But it's the height of hypocrisy to muzzle student speech while making a show of opposing censorship. And the university president isn't just dealing with a newspaper on its own turf: With these warrants, Falwell is leveraging state power to try to stop speech by private actors whose only connection to his school is to write about it. It's a bad approach for anyone to take, but especially someone who claims to support free expression and intellectual diversity.

NEXT: The Snobbery Is Partly the Point in Downton-esque Belgravia

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Falwell should be sued under RICO for acting like a mafia Kingpin.

    1. If he’s a Kingpin, Daredevil and Spiderman should fight him.

      1. Spider-Man vs Kingpin is a squash.

    2. He is not doing anything different than what large corporations or the government does. If you criticize a company’s product or services they can take you to court for affecting their profitability. And if your are a whistle blower in a supposedly free speech, democratic nation like the US, they will put you in jail for divulging government secrets. And if you don’t blow feathers up Trump’s arse, “YOU’RE FIRED!”. I am surprised he hasn’t gotten rid of Dr. Fauci yet. Could be Fauci is a too highly visible target.

      1. You.
        Are.
        Full.
        Of.
        Shit.

        1. Still think that? #FireFauci trending today after Trump retweeted it.

  2. Why is Reason biting at the ankles of these mainstream institutions, while ignoring censorship at…wait, never mind.

  3. Jerry Fallwell Jr. is a thing?

    Ok, first of, if you name your kid after yourself, fuck you, you vain piece of shit. Second, I am glad Liberty University leadership is a meritocracy and has fallen into the hands of the most capable follower of Jerry Fallwell

    1. Or at least the most biologically qualified follower.

    2. Ok, first of, if you name your kid after yourself, fuck you, you vain piece of shit.

      Yes, yes. Far better to simply assign everyone a number. But don’t let them iterate their number for their children – better to assign random numbers to people. Can’t have family units forming.

      *sigh*

  4. GOP getting in bed with the christian fundies is one of the worst things to happen to this country. Collectivist, anti-science, anti-american, and anti-christ beliefs. I doubt a poor middle eastern Jew telling them to give all they have to the poor and to welcome foreigners would be well received among the Falwell’s and their ilk.

    Reminder that the falwell’s beliefs and their “university” are founded on racial segregation. These are the same assholes behind the satanic panic, AIDS is a punishment from god, later 9/11 was a punishment from god, etc..

    https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/agent-intolerance/

    1. If you recall, Liberty hosted a Vermont Jew who promised his followers to taketh from the rich and giveth to them (followers).

      http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/bernie-sanders-speaks-liberty-university

      I don’t give credit to the university for doing this – they wanted to host their favored Pres candidates and for tax reasons they had to balance out those candidates with disfavored candidates.

      But it’s to the credit to the students that despite disagreeing with Sanders they didn’t try to deplatform him or boo him off the stage, or assault the faculty sponsor of the speech. For a bunch of clingers, they sure showed better manners than many Ivy League students.

      1. I’m more surprised that Sanders would speak there then the students being “well behaved”. Liberty exercises far more control over their students’ personal lives and behavior than other uni’s. If the Falwells didn’t want there to be booing and deplatforming, there wouldn’t be booing. The administration even controls the student paper there, so no voice of dissent is allowed. You know, typical far right stuff.

        1. Amazing – the university enforcing basic norms of civility gets turned into a negative.

          I don’t like what sounds like the policy at Liberty – I think FIRE flagged them for violating their professed standards of academic freedom.

          So I don’t like them pretending to be for free expression and then preventing students from speaking.

          But if they require students to treat visitors respectfully without disruption, then that’s a good thing and the goes into the debit side of Liberty’s ledger.

          1. Sure. Ok. Fine. That is a good thing, and I would like civility and free expression to return to other universities. It just seems kinda irrelevant when we are talking about a supposed university that doesn’t allow their students to be gay, doesn’t teach evolution (they call biology class “Creation Science”), banned the student democrat club (so much for free speech, again), and was founded on racial segregation.

            1. So, I’d say that if *these* students were able to get along civilly with a socialist with a hard-on for commie dictatorships, then the presumably more intelligent and enlightened students at the better universities ought to be able to get along civilly with, say, right-wingers with controversial views, or even deliberately provocative views.

        2. You know, typical far right stuff.

          https://www.thefire.org/10-worst-colleges-for-free-speech-2019/

          All hotbeds of the far right, amirite.

          1. FIRE gives a pass to conservative-controlled schools, making its rankings worthless in this context. Gullible clingers disregard or fail to apprehend that point when pointing to FIRE’s rankings as an indication that mainstream schools are the problem with respect to campus censorship.

        3. De Oppresso Liber
          April.10.2020 at 4:00 pm
          “I’m more surprised that Sanders would speak there then the students being “well behaved”…”

          You would be.

    2. It’s not fundamentalism. Most fundamentalists aren’t bad. Instead this is a particular brand of evangelicalism. And not all evangelicals, just the dominant brand on the right. They have stopped worshiping God and instead worship politicians and pastors. The Bible is not the source of truth for them, it’s the source of excuses for their hypocrisy. There are enough phrases in the Bible that they can pick and choose the ones they want to string together to justify any evil.

      1. Amen.

        1. Amen to the Amen!

          God COMMANDS us to kill EVERYONE!

          Our that them thar VALUES of society outta come from that them thar HOLY BIBLE, and if ya read it right, it actually says that God wants us to KILL EVERYBODY!!! Follow me through now: No one is righteous, NONE (Romans 3:10). Therefore, ALL must have done at least one thing bad, since they’d be righteous, had they never done anything bad. Well, maybe they haven’t actually DONE evil, maybe they THOUGHT something bad (Matt. 5:28, thoughts can be sins). In any case, they must’ve broken SOME commandment, in thinking or acting, or else they’d be righteous. James 2:10 tells us that if we’ve broken ANY commandment, we broke them ALL. Now we can’t weasel out of this by saying that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, because Christ said that he’s come to fulfill the old law, not to destroy it (Matt. 5:17). So we MUST conclude that all are guilty of everything. And the Old Testament lists many capital offenses! There’s working on Sunday. There’s also making sacrifices to, or worshipping, the wrong God (Exodus 22:20, Deut. 17:2-5), or even showing contempt for the Lord’s priests or judges (Deut. 17:12). All are guilty of everything, including the capital offenses. OK, so now we’re finally there… God’s Word COMMANDS us such that we’ve got to kill EVERYBODY!!!

          (I am still looking for that special exception clause for me & my friends & family… I am sure I will find it soon!)

      2. I think that’s true. But nobody is forcing these kids to sign up.

    3. I mean, its not worse than the anti-science ‘I fucking love science’ idiots the Left is composed of.

      At least high-schoolers being told pi is 3 or that evolution is fake has pretty close to zero real-world consequences – if these people go on to become engineers or scientist they’ll be corrected damn quick.

      Can’t say the same for the Left’s insistence on supporting computer models when no one seems to know all the assumptions built in and have little correspondence to observed reality or insisting on forcing the latest fad from the sociologists onto the whole country. That’s gotten us a good two generations utterly dependent on welfare. And New Math. Alongside idiots trying to force the metric system into everyday use – because the ‘sophisticated’ Europeans do it.

      1. Or people with no understanding of computer models blindly mocking them

        th

        1. Or lefty fucking ignoramuses claiming to know much of anything.

  5. I could say something immature like JFJ is a petty theological dictator wanna be asshole.

    Instead, maybe a prompt for more reasoned discussion. What and why do people want to ban, especially in the realm of non-violent expression? My suggestion is that many people want to ban what violates their sense of sacred. Speak or do something that contradicts the church, the state, the community, the environment, and ultimately whatever some dimwit considers to be their true understanding and belief of anything at all, and they feel violated.

    Very few of us really hold free thought and expression as sacred, despite occasionally mouthing the words when convenient.

  6. “The Liberty University president thinks two reporters’ coverage was unfair—so he wants them arrested … for trespassing.”

  7. What specifically do the signs say outside the campus?

    Only Students and Faculty and Alumni and Parents and Really Rich Donors Allowed on Premises without Permission from the Dean?

    In short, were these reporters given warning that they weren’t wanted on campus grounds?

    1. Were they individually warned off campus? That would do the trick as well, I suppose. If that’s what happened, which I don’t know.

      1. Just looked through Google Maps street view, no sign outside their “Welcome Center” stating no trespass or the like.

        I agree if their invitation was rescinded and they refused to leave anyway then they could be charged. But I very much doubt that happened.

        Me thinks they are full of shit on this. And I think JF Jr should be eligible to have charges of filing a false police report filed against him if he can’t produce any evidence of trespass. Also the judge who issued the arrest warrants should be disbarred to say the least if no evidence was presented at the time of trespass.

    2. Bisexual poolboys can come in too!!!

  8. >>And so the university president secured arrest warrants

    Fourth Amendment problem too…

  9. Seems stupid and generates more disdain – just refute it and move on. Even so Reason could have written about how the NYTimes sent a reporter there for one reason (not the truth, just how they could spin it for their leftie readers), or property rights of private institutions. Instead Binion just takes the NYT spin and runs with it.

    1. Or they could tell the truth about Falwell, I mean, there is that

      Oh, you really think it is about property rights

      Yeah,wink wink, sure it is

  10. Jerry Falwell Jr. Has a Free Speech Problem,

    Impossible! The only people suppressing free speech are liberal arts majors and transgendered activists who want you to call them hiz. This must be some mistake or some crisis actor plant who has mind-melded with the good reverend Jerry Falwell, who we all know is beyond reproach. Geesch… these Reason writers are such liberal shills!

    1. Study OBL and learn from him. Or if you can’t do that, which I don’t think you can, then try to avoid doing parody.

      1. Sorry, I don’t want to be a racist twat. I’ve got to do it my way.

        1. “I don’t want to be a racist twat”

          You sure picked the wrong movement to join.

          https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0870004484/reasonmagazinea-20/

        2. “Sorry, I don’t want to be a racist twat. I’ve got to do it my way.”

          We understand.
          Being a fucking lefty ignoramus who can’t pay his mortgage is the best you got.
          Aspiring to be a racist twit is beyond your capabilities.

  11. Jerry Falwell Jr. Has a Free Speech Problem

    Must be hereditary.

    1. wonder if they will make a movie based on this Lawsuit

  12. That’s not the way trespassing works. You have to be told to leave, refuse, they call cops, they tell you to leave, you refuse, they arrest you.

  13. The Apple Doesn’t Fal(well) far from the Tree

    1. Anyhow, seeing that the Falwell family really likes State Intervention on the Press, maybe Jerry should go to China, heard the Wuhan Province is pretty nice this time of the year based on the CCP Controled Media

  14. Is there a difference between free speech (freedom of expression) versus truthful speech?

    Falwell’s beef was that the article(s) was distorted and not truthful. He wouldn’t have a complaint if facts were accurately reported.

    1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      ha

      oh, man,you are funny

      1. HAHAHHAHAHAHAH
        Oh, man, you are stoooooopid.

    2. Lying is coercion and is not protected by 1a.

      All lying should be criminalized like it is already in court and contracts.

      Truth is reality, the objective of justice, and criminals at every level can’t abide it.

      1. You are Aware people had said the Exact same thing about Hate Speech, Misgendering, Mansplaining, Porn, Violent Video Games, ect…

        Speech is Speech, and the First Amendment made it clear “Make No Law”. The only regulation needed is a Free Market, unless if you want Tyranny and another Global Pandemic

        https://youtu.be/M9hrqfHgT_o

        1. You are saying that the perjury laws in court, “the truth the whole truth and NOTHING but the truth” violate your constitutional rights. That’s bullshit.

          In court and contracts the mere act of lying is a crime.

    3. well, to legally prove defamation, first and foremost there needs to be proof of damages and it was the direct result on what was said, tho seeing what his father had done (A movie was made about that), him suing for defamation itself would probably have a much bigger effect on his reputation than what ever those articles have said to begin with.

  15. Can’t Falwell just pray for a pox on the reporters houses?

    1. Well, that would be on a Continuational level and even on a basic Free Speech Principles, Praying for a Pox is way less Problematic

  16. Everyone who doesn’t want people to know the truth has a problem with free speech.

  17. “The point is Falwell’s attempt to arrest people associated with reports THAT ARE biased against him”

    FTFY

  18. Because you endangered the lives of falculty and students.

  19. It just another case of a religious fanatic/con man trying to use the courts to suppress free speech.

  20. Why do I have a feeling a Squel to The People vs Larry Flynt is in Production

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.