Censored Liberty University columnist steps down from position at student newspaper

VIRGINIA – An attempt by Liberty University administration to censor one of its newspaper’s student columnists backfired with the widespread republication of a column criticizing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump across numerous national news outlets.

The column, written by Liberty Champion Sports Editor Joel Schmieg, came in response to University President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s continued support of Trump’s campaign following the release of a now-infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which the Republican nominee boasted about being able to kiss and grab women by their genitals without their consent because of his celebrity status.

Falwell pulled Schmieg’s column, justifying his decision by calling the piece “redundant.”

“The paper already had a letter that was very similar in content supporting Hillary Clinton and condemning Donald Trump for the 2005 video,” Falwell wrote in an Oct. 19 statement. “The two letters were redundant so an editorial decision was made to go with the other letter, which written [sic] by a medical student, because it did not come from a staff member but an independent reader.”

A statement released by a university spokesperson cited space limitations as another reason for Falwell’s excision of the article.

“Space allocation always requires editorial judgment and that judgment simply does not allow for repetition,” the Oct. 19 statement reads. “This was discussed with Mr. Schmieg and the University is at a loss for why he seems to have not recalled or understood these facts and circumstances.”

But the column — which Schmieg writes weekly — was already guaranteed the editorial space by virtue of being a recurring column. After Falwell pulled the column, Schmieg took to Facebook to post the piece, where it has since had more than 160 shares, writing, “I find these words from Jerry amusing and extremely hypocritical as yesterday I was told he was not allowing me to express my personal opinion in an article I wrote for my weekly column in the Liberty Champion about Trump and his ‘locker room talk.’ Here is the story I was not allowed to publish because Jerry didn’t like it.”

In his column, Schmieg wrote about his own experiences as a male athlete and the content of the “locker room talk” to which Trump compared his own words in the “Access Hollywood” tape.

“As a former male athlete, I know exactly what high school guys talk about when they think they are alone,” Schmieg wrote. “It absolutely can be vulgar and objectifying to women. But here’s the thing — I have never in my life heard guys casually talk about preying on women in a sexual manner.”

Schmieg’s column condemns Trump and those who continue to support him despite the comments he made in the video.

“This is not locker room talk,” he wrote. “Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to excuse the terrible things they or others have said.”

Despite labeling Trump’s words as “reprehensible,” Falwell continues to defend the candidate in his pursuit of the presidency — something with which Schmieg and other Liberty students and faculty have found fault.

This is not the first time Falwell has been criticized for his support of the candidate. A week before Schmieg’s column was cut, a Liberty student group called Liberty United Against Trump released a statement denouncing Falwell for defending the GOP nominee.

“A recently uncovered tape revealed his comments bragging about sexually assaulting women,” the statement reads. “Any faculty or staff member at Liberty would be terminated for such comments, and yet when Donald Trump makes them, President Falwell rushes eagerly to his defense – taking the name ‘Liberty University’ with him.”

Falwell, who has campaigned as an evangelical supporter on the candidate’s behalf, issued his own statement criticizing the students’ views but called the letter “a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.”

Though Falwell says he supports Trump as a private citizen, his status as the son of his well-known televangelist father by the same name and his position as the president of an influential evangelical Christian university resonates with the religious voter base rallying around the Trump campaign. In his statement, Falwell goes on to conclude, “I am only fulfilling my obligation as a citizen to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ by expressing my personal opinion about who I believe is best suited to lead our nation in a time of crisis.”

And while Falwell claims pride for the campus’ free expression, Schmieg’s column still wound up on the cutting room floor a week after Falwell issued his statement.

Schmieg initially agreed to be interviewed for this article, but stopped corresponding to any further requests for a response. On Oct. 20, Schmieg posted again on Facebook writing, “When I posted my column on Facebook, the purpose was to let people read my work on something very important to me. I have had a column in the Liberty Champion since the beginning of my sophomore year, so when I found out it wasn’t running, I was obviously upset.”

Schmieg expressed disbelief for the popularity his column attracted, admitting that he had received media requests from multiple local and national news outlets which he had declined.

“Unfortunately, the main story turned out not to be the column, but the fact that it was pulled by President Falwell,” he wrote. “In the end, President Falwell had every right to pull the article. Obviously I did not like his reasoning, but he is still in charge.”

In the post, Schmieg wrote that he had received widespread gratitude for speaking out against Trump and standing up for survivors of sexual assault. One woman, an evangelical Christian who is a Democrat, he wrote, praised him for his judgment in abstention from a Trump endorsement, despite his being the Republican nominee.

“Some values transcend all political and religious barriers,” she said. “Your article made me realize that not all Christian evangelicals are content to jump on the Trump bandwagon simply because he is supposed to be representing the conservative Republican Party.”

In response Schmieg wrote, “That was the point of the column: To express my views on a presidential candidate and speak out for those who have been unable to speak out for themselves. Donald Trump is not the man to represent our country, and that is why I wrote what I did.”

But the post concludes with a turn in its overall message, ending with an abrupt profession of Schmieg’s love for Liberty University, its faculty and students — even Falwell.

“I hope I never gave the impression otherwise, but if I did, I apologize,” he wrote. “Also, I love President Falwell. I never want to lose sight of the fact that we are both brothers in Christ. We may disagree on how to live our lives, but that is why our country is so great.”

Schmieg had previously berated Falwell on Twitter for his endorsement of Trump, calling Falwell “an embarrassment” in an Oct. 10 tweet and writing, “And there it is. Jerry is still supporting Trump. Is it possible to impeach him? @LibertyU” that same day.

Falwell’s own Twitter is peppered with right-wing or Trump-affiliated polling results that support a Trump lead over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and disapproval of the “corrupt” media.

Schmieg has since resigned from his position on the paper saying, “I felt it was the best decision for me personally. President Falwell and I have very different political views and I felt it was best if I no longer worked under him,” in an email to the Student Press Law Center. Though Falwell declined to comment on the matter, the circumstances surrounding Schmieg’s decision to step down are not unfamiliar.

Earlier this year Mark DeMoss, a Liberty graduate and former long-time member of its Board of Trustees who chaired its executive committee, was asked to resign from his position in April following his statements disagreeing with Falwell’s endorsement of Trump.

The Washington Post quoted DeMoss saying that Trump does not represent the “Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students,” in a March 1 article.

DeMoss resigned from the board on April 25, citing a “concern about a lack of trust.”

“The president/chancellor and the board chair and new executive committee chair were suggesting my motive for speaking to the Post was entirely political (that I was a political pawn of rival campaigns), rather than a genuine concern for the reputation of the university we trustees have (had) a fiduciary responsibility to protect,” he wrote in an email to a Religion News Service reporter. “I concluded if they could not accept the reasons I gave them there was not sufficient trust to continue serving together.”

Liberty University, a private institution not subject to First Amendment standards, regards itself as the owner and publisher of the Champion. Consequently, Liberty administration — namely Falwell — is charged with making editorial decisions about any potentially “controversial” content each week the paper is published, Schmieg told The Daily Beast. Even though excising the column was legally within the college’s authority, the message sent by the president’s decision has been a chilling one for other would-be dissenters on the Lynchburg campus.

In an email to Politico Magazine, one unnamed professor wrote, “Whatever the truth may be behind that situation, it does leave the impression that speaking too forcefully or too directly about such issues could, at a minimum, lead to professional complications, unwanted scrutiny, or simply a loss of favor that might decrease one’s chances of receiving a career advancement opportunity that would have otherwise been given.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, expressed his own concerns surrounding the chilling effect on Liberty’s campus.

“It’s concerning that any university, public or private, has created a hostile climate where people don’t feel safe in expressing political views that diverge from their administration’s,” he said. “That’s a good way for an educational institution to produce robots, not informed and engaged citizens.”

While Schmieg’s decision to post his column on a platform free from administrative censorship took the initial sting out of Falwell’s blatant attempt to control editorial content, it seems the power of a private university has found new ways to exercise control over the media and its ability to hold power accountable.

But LoMonte has hope that Liberty’s blowback against its student journalist will allow the university to reevaluate the role it plays in facilitating free speech on campus.

“I imagine that the ironically named Liberty University will be seeing a drop in applications from people who want to learn in a climate that values and rewards independent thinking,” he said. “Liberty should join the 21st century and recognize that administrative censorship of journalism is irreconcilable with fundamental American values.”

SPLC staff writer Mary Tyler March can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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