Liberty U Continues the Ugly Tradition…

The story has leaked out already, but WORLD put it all together, with some depth. Student editors and reporters at Liberty’s student newspaper told their tale of administration bullying and Trumpish power-grabs. I’m sorry to say that such administrative antics are not unusual for student newspapers in evangelical higher education.

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…all the news that fits [the Falwells’ vision]…

If you haven’t seen WORLD‘s story yet, it’s worth your time. Liberty’s hatchet man was Bruce Kirk. Kirk upbraided the student editors for trying to act like real journalists. After students tried to publish news of the controversial Red-Letter Revival last year, Kirk warned them that the student newspaper ought only to make the university look good. According to WORLD, Kirk told the students,

in the real world, which this isn’t, let’s just be honest, right? … You will be beholden to an organization, to a company. … That is just part of life. And it’s part of life for all of us by the way. Put journalism aside for a second. Do I get to do everything that I want to do or does Jerry dictate what I get to do? … Somebody else decides what you do and what you don’t say or do.

When student editor Erin Covey asked a question, Kirk tried hard to shut her down. Liberty University, Kirk told her, is not all that different from any other “family business.” Kirk went on,

it’s a family business, it is. I mean, Jerry Falwell and his dad Jerry before him and that’s how this university was founded, right? It wasn’t founded by somebody else. It was founded by the Falwells. . . . It’s their paper. They can do what they want. … If things aren’t followed, they’ll get stricter.

And get stricter they did. According to WORLD, student editors soon found themselves out of a job.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m no evangelical myself, nor did I attend an evangelical college. As I found in the research for my recent book, however, the recent goings-on at Liberty are not very far from the traditional norm. As I’ve pointed out in the book and in these pages, censorship has always been part and parcel of the student and faculty experience at evangelical institutions.

It might not be polite to point out, but I think it’s true: speaking historically, there can’t be any sort of free speech crisis at evangelical colleges. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it earlier, and I stand by it:

Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.

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Censorship at Christian Colleges

Want to get fired? Try this: Run a controversial story in a newspaper at an evangelical college. This week, Liberty University’s Erin Covey complains that her reporting is being blocked. She’s not the first student reporter to have this experience. On the contrary, student editors have always worked under constant threat.

At issue today is an anti-Trump/anti-Falwell revival going on near Liberty University. Shane Claiborne and his progressive evangelical allies are hosting a Red Letter Revival service, challenging Liberty’s president to join them or change his “toxic” Trump-loving ways.

When student reporter Erin Covey shared her coverage of the revival with Liberty’s leaders, she was told to squelch the story. As she tells it, Liberty’s administration told her,

No let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.

Covey plaintively wondered,

We often wonder: Do other private schools deal with this? What are the levels of freedom that other school papers have? Do we have the same freedoms — is this common?

When it comes to school newspapers—including student newspapers–censorship and content control have been universal practices in the history of evangelical higher education. As I describe in my recent book, this has been true at all evangelical schools, no matter how liberal or how conservative.

Earnestine Ritter

How to get fired at Biola, c. 1957.

Why? Let me share one example from Biola that exemplifies this tradition. In 1957, editor Lloyd Hamill took a strong anti-segregation position. He excoriated white evangelicals who opposed racial integration. As he put it,

No Spirit-controlled Christian can escape the solid fact that all men are equal in God’s sight.  Integration is not only the law of our nation, it is also the plain teaching of the Bible.

Biola, Hamill wrote, didn’t only endorse integration. It practiced it, employing an African American journalist on staff. A deluge of letters flooded Biola. More than 90% of them attacked Hamill’s position, though a few supported him. What did Biola’s administration do? As Biola’s president explained privately to Billy Graham. Hamill was sacked immediately. Biola did not want to endorse

the very foolish letters he wrote and statements which he made.

Granted, the situation is somewhat different. Hamill worked at the college’s magazine, not a student publication. But I think the rule still holds.

Why do evangelical colleges censor their publications so rigorously? Why can’t Erin Covey cover an anti-Falwell revival?

It’s not an accident and it’s not only Liberty. All evangelical colleges live under constant scrutiny. The evangelical public is always wondering if school X or Y has gone soft. The publications coming out of schools—including student newspapers—have always received endless scrutiny from interested members of the evangelical public.

Whatever appears in a student newspaper is often taken to represent more than one student’s opinion. It is taken, at heart, to represent the current moral climate of the school. For students like Erin Covey and editors like Lloyd Hamill, the result is clear: Don’t rock the boat.