MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, September 4th, 2018.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stands up for free-speech rights on college campuses. FIRE, as it’s known, has been critical of Liberty University for putting the school’s reputation and institutional messaging first, and the free expression of its students second.
FIRE concedes that Liberty is a private school and as such it’s not bound to follow the First Amendment. But FIRE does warn prospective students that they should expect censorship.
The group sounded an alarm back in 2016 that its student newspaper, the Liberty Champion, was not a free press.
Last month, our sister publication WORLD Magazine published a story about the Liberty student paper. And a few days after we published it, FIRE renewed its complaint with the university.
WORLD reported the story of student journalist Jack Panyard. He’d been offered the editor-in-chief job, then was told his services would no longer be needed. He got the news a few days after a tense meeting that included a phone conference with the president of the school, Jerry Falwell Jr.
Falwell told the students that the university as publisher, quoting here, “is responsible for content decisions, to find stories to be covered by Champion personnel and makes all of the calls on the articles, photographs and other content. We’re going to have to be stricter in the future if these protocols aren’t followed.”
That was April 18th. By the 27th, nine days later, Panyard was out of a job, and that meant he’d also be losing scholarship money: $3,000 a semester.
Now, WORLD’s story is 2,300 words long. I urge you to set aside some time to read it. We simply do not have enough time to go through all the details.
But I do want you to hear from one of the reporters who wrote the story, Charissa Crotts.
Charissa, good morning.
CHARISSA CROTTS, REPORTER: Good morning, Nick.
EICHER: I do want to walk through the sequence of events that led to Jack’s losing his job. But let’s begin with the tension that led up to all of it, the tension between the student staff and the administration.
CROTTS: Yeah, sure. So, it sort of went back to the fall of 2016. That’s when Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president, endorsed Donald Trump’s campaign. He started reviewing all of the Champion articles that mentioned Trump and he would sometimes edit or even pull out of publication the newspaper articles that were negative toward Trump. So, one example of this is the sports reporter wrote a piece criticizing Donald Trump for the way he talked about women and President Falwell pulled the article before publication. So, this was frustrating to the sports reporter and he ended up posting it on his Facebook page where it drew some negative press for Liberty.
EICHER: Alright, Charissa, and the oversight continued, and we’ll just use that term “oversight” here. And that’s the specific sequence of a little less than two weeks that led, in the university’s telling, to a “serious restructuring” of the paper.
CROTTS: Yeah, that’s right. So, the student reporters I talked to said that the oversight actually became worse in the 2017-2018 school year and things really came to a head in April when President Falwell told reporter Erin Covey not to cover a certain local event that he disagreed with. Word kind of got out to local media and they started contacting Erin and requesting interviews. In at least one of these interviews, she said it’s difficult to practice the objective journalism we learn in our classes with the level of oversight we receive. So, a few weeks after that, Bruce Kirk who’s the dean of communications at Liberty called Jack Panyard and the other staff members one-by-one for interviews and he ended up firing Jack and also Erin and taking away Jack’s scholarship and telling them that the Champion would be restructured for the next year.
EICHER: Charissa, I mentioned the free-speech organization, FIRE, and its work to try to defend the First Amendment at government-funded schools. Private schools like Liberty aren’t bound by that, and you found that Liberty is hardly alone among private schools.
CROTTS: Yeah, that’s right. It’s actually pretty common for private universities to censor their student newspapers to help it reflect better on the university. But even though they’re within their rights to do it, they really should think about if that’s the best option. Especially Christian schools should be more concerned with training truth-telling journalists than preserving their own reputations.
EICHER: Charissa Crotts, is one of our new reporters at WORLD Magazine. She worked on the story. Good job, Charissa. Thank you so much.
CROTTS: It’s my pleasure.