September 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A former student journalist at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University (LU) has provided a rare insider’s look at the militantly right-wing evangelical institution which, he says, does not tolerate dissent.

Will E. Young recounted his experiences attending Liberty in a recent Washington Post article.

A picture emerges of a university ruled by an authoritarian figure, the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who brooks no dissent from far-right, extreme fundamentalist ideology.

Young notes that LU, unlike most universities, does not offer its professors tenure (except for those who teach in its law school; Liberty was required to offer those professors tenure to secure accreditation). Professors are on year-to-year contracts. Any who dares to criticize the school or its policies or deviates from Liberty’s rigid views, won’t be invited back. Several former LU professors talked about regular mass firings. The dismissals often came just before the school year began, giving those terminated little time to find another position.

Young served as editor of The Champion, LU’s weekly student newspaper. He quickly learned that in that position, he’d have no independence.

“[W]hen my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an ‘oversight’ system – read: a censorship regime – that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review,” wrote Young. “Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally.”

Eventually, Young quit and LU’s administrators took over the paper, which they use as a propaganda organ. This attitude, Young said, spreads to all areas of the campus.

“It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life,” Young wrote. “Faculty, staff and students on the Lynch­burg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leader, which mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from campus). This ‘culture of fear,’ as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story – most of them anonymously to protect their jobs or their standing – worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.”

According to Young, Falwell would accept no criticism of Donald Trump, whom he endorsed for president in 2016. Young describes a few occasions where Christian speakers who are critical of Trump or other conservatives were warned not to set foot on campus. One of them, Jonathan Merritt, an alumnus of Liberty, had committed the cardinal sin of writing something negative about the Hobby Lobby craft-store chain.

Young’s piece is studded with similar stories: LU’s Campus Dem­ocrats group was shut down, students who wanted to express solidarity for victims of sexual assault as part of the #MeToo movement were pressured to cancel the event and students in LU’s film school were ordered to work on a hagiographic film about Trump’s presidency as part of a biblical prophecy.

Liberty was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971. Falwell Sr., who headed the Moral Majority for a number of years, was instrumental in making the Religious Right a fixture in American politics. The school passed to control of Falwell Jr. after Falwell Sr. died in 2007.

The university, which had only about 150 students in its first class, now enrolls more than 15,000 students on campus. (An additional 94,000 students take online courses.) Part of the school’s success is due to taxpayer aid; many of its students receive federal support through Pell grants.