Several times a year, either to students at journalism conferences or in a classroom at The King's College in New York City, I deliver a lecture that I call "Up Against the Wall: Getting along with administrators at private colleges."
The big idea of this talk is that private schools are difficult, but not impossible, places in which to do traditional journalism -- because in a private school the administration is both the publisher of the newspaper and the "local government" that student journalists need to cover.
The goal, I stress, is to do as much journalism as possible, with an emphasis on hard-news reporting. Thus, one of my guidelines -- while serving as newspaper advisor at two Christian private schools -- was to address campus controversies with real reporting, as opposed to taking the easy way out and writing splashy opinion columns.
This brings us, of course, to news reports about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., yanking an opinion column critical of Donald Trump out of the Liberty Champion. Here is the top of The Politico report on this development:
The president of Liberty University censored an article critical of Donald Trump, according to the sports editor of the school's official newspaper, the Liberty Champion.
The editor, Joel Schmieg, posted a statement on his Facebook account claiming it was Jerry Falwell Jr., the university's president and a Trump supporter, who spiked the column, which criticized Trump for lewd comments he made on a hot mic during a 2005 taping of "Access Hollywood."
"Yesterday I was told [Falwell] 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,' " Schmieg wrote.
"I understand Joel's frustration regarding the situation," Cierra Carter, the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion, told POLITICO. "Our president has been very vocal with his opinions during this election season and we'd like that same privilege."
This is an interesting use of the word "censor," in light of the fact that Falwell is legally the publisher of the newspaper that is owned and operated by the university (as is the norm in private schools on left and right). This would be like saying that the owner of The New York Times, or the publisher of the newspaper, "censored" an article by a conservative member of the staff criticizing the newspaper's editorial management for endorsing Hillary Clinton.
Now, was it (a) legal or (b) wise for Falwell to take this action? These are the questions that reporters need to be asking as they report this story today, if additional news organizations elect to do so. As for Falwell, he had this to say:
Sounds like a publisher, right?
As for the legal question, the team at the Inside Higher Ed website found an appropriate source to feature in its report, with Frank D. LoMonte of the the Student Press Law Center noting via email:
"Of course, Liberty is a private university not subject to First Amendment constraints, but the best private universities voluntarily maintain a hands-off policy respectful of the integrity of independent journalism. Leaving aside the civic and educational benefits of fostering critical-thinking skills on a college campus, it's just self-defeating in the year 2016 to think you can suppress unwanted ideas by tearing articles out of paper newspapers. When you censor an article in the 21st century, you're just guaranteeing it a wider audience. I doubt many 20-year-old sports columnists are being read across the country, but by censoring Joel's column, the university has exponentially increased its impact. There's nothing more irresistible than journalism powerful authority figures don't want you to read."
This is accurate, of course. Inside Higher Ed and The Daily Beast both published the Schmieg column and I expect other websites, especially on the cultural left, to do so. This is often the case when students at conservative educational institutions publish these kinds of editorials or even news reports. (GetReligion readers may recall that, back in my student days at Baylor University, I was caught up in one of these cases that made national headlines.)
As a journalism professor, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Liberty student journalists had actually attempted to report a legitimate news story on the same topic, going out of their way to interview campus voices on both sides of the Falwell-Trump story.
Would Liberty administrators have agreed to be interviewed for such a story? Would that have been spiked? Also, what would have happened if student editors had chosen to print the offending column in a debate format, with another student journalist arguing the opposite point of view? Would Falwell have allowed that? After all:
In his Facebook post, Schmieg poked fun at a statement by Falwell earlier in the week, in which he said: "It is 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."
Falwell is raising a valid point, although it's clearly in his self interest to do so. Fair-minded people may wonder if the mainstream press would be as up in arms about a conservative columnist having his or her work spiked from the newspaper on a liberal private school campus (or, more likely, the school's alternative conservative newspaper being yanked or trashed).
Would leaders at liberal private schools shut down student journalists attempting to report and write articles critical of actions by the administration or digging into matters linked to the unholy trinity of private-school life, as in student (and faculty) discipline cases, school finances and the affairs of donors?
Let me end with a highly symbolic flashback to an interesting moment in my own teaching career. Long ago, I interviewed for a position teaching journalism (and advising the campus newspaper) at what I will call a liberal campus linked to a conservative religious tradition.
During that process a top administrator asked what I would do if a student tried to write a column critical of Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. I said, (a) I would prefer to see students deal with controversial issues of that kind in actual news reporting, featuring the views of students, faculty and administrators on both sides and (b) if the newspaper was going to run a personal column on that topic, I would request that it be featured as part of a dialogue, paired with a column taking the opposite point of view.
The administrator was not amused. He took a long drag on his cigarette and said, concerning the airing of viewpoints opposed to abortion, that he could not see the administration allowing something like that to happen in the student newspaper. After all, that would clash with the school's stance defending abortion rights (he said, "a woman's right to choose") and it would create too much controversy on campus.
Needless to say, I didn't get that job. However, something better happened, but that's another story.
As the old journalism saying goes: It's hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck. You see, all private schools -- left and right -- have sacred cows that affect student journalists.
I have noticed that this is true in a few elite mainstream newsrooms, as well.