Liberty University attacks freedom of the press

The importance of maintaining journalistic integrity

By on August 28, 2018

“Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

This section of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is pretty cut and dry, at least on the surface. Essentially, citizens have the right to speak freely and the press cannot be censored, as it is in countries like North Korea or Iran.

In today’s America, there’s still debate over this right. President Donald Trump frequently attacks the press and, in turn, attacks our democracy.

Last week, Liberty University (LU), the world’s largest evangelical Christian university, imposed a similar attack on freedom of the press. Bruce Kirk, the Dean of Liberty’s School of Communication and Digital Content, restructured the entire student newspaper, firing its Editor-In-Chief and forcing the students to write in a slanted way.

“Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is,” Kirk told the Liberty Champion staffers, according to World Magazine. “…Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism. My job is to be the First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?

“It’s [Liberty’s] newspaper. They can stop this newspaper today if they wanted to. And just so you know, they can do it. Too much trouble, too many problems, we’re getting ourselves in hot water, you guys are doing stories we can’t defend. We’re gonna stop.”

Kirk is recklessly incorrect in nearly everything he says here. The only part he got right was when he put the student’s thoughts into words. But here’s the thing — their job isn’t to keep the LU reputation, it is to do journalism, it is to be the First Amendment, it is to go out and dig and investigate. It basically says as much directly on Liberty’s website where it describes what students will get from a journalism degree.

“Pursue truth as you uncover and develop story ideas, gather information from sources, and accurately communicate it to your audience with our Bachelor of Science in Journalism,” the description reads. “Value truth and objectivity through factual storytelling, combating the threat of fake news.”

Kirk’s comments sharply oppose that description. Keeping the school’s reputation and image is not “valuing truth and objectivity,” but rather a glorified PR stunt. The crux of it all is that the student media censorship for the 2018-19 school year isn’t something new. School president Jerry Falwell Jr. has taken action against the newspaper since 2016, according to the World Magazine publication. That means the rising seniors at Liberty have been censored for most of their college careers.

This year, stories are required to enter a multi-stage approval process in order to be published. First, the faculty advisor reviews it, then it goes to a panel of faculty members and, lastly, Falwell if there is still debate over the story.

Back in 2016, the limitations began when Falwell publicly stated his support for Trump as president. From that point on, Falwell required any article mentioning Trump to be reviewed by him personally before going to print. Falwell would apparently make notes and force editors to add information if he didn’t fully approve, according to the World Magazine report.

Imagine a world where the President of the United States has a checks and balances system on the press. Fox News would be the only media outlet. Wild.

The situation at Liberty is unique because of its religious practices, and most of the students come from conservative families. Students know what they are getting into when they enroll at Liberty, but Falwell and Kirk are still robbing them of a complete, well-rounded journalistic experience.

Advisors for college newspapers are good. Their job is to guide and mold the young journalists in their quest to make a difference in the world. The thing is, their job isn’t to demand their students to write in a particular way. If that was the case, the student journalists would be servants to their advisors.

This obviously isn’t Congress telling a publication it must write in a certain way, but on a smaller level this is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Journalists shouldn’t be restricted like this. They shouldn’t be cautious when writing and reporting on a story. More than ever, now is the time to empower journalistic integrity. The world needs it.

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