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.