Woke language hides illiberal tactics in liberal aims
By: Joseph Heath
After several years of creeping illiberalism under the guise of progressive politics, American liberals are finally getting their act together. They are pushing back, creating several organizations committed to combating the influence of “woke” politics and ideology. They have momentum, not just because many woke mantras like “defund the police” have proven spectacularly unpopular, but also because there is genuine growing alarm about the intolerant and authoritarian brand of politics that has become associated with the woke left.
Unfortunately, many of the woke genuinely do not understand why anyone finds their politics, or their political tactics, threatening. In particular, the accusation that they are being authoritarian, or that “cancel culture” is a threat to freedom of expression, is one that they are simply unable to process.
There is a reason for this — and one that’s worth understanding. There are several key phrases that play an enormously important role in woke politics (e.g. “safety,” “mental health,” “microaggression,” “bullying” and even “human rights”) which they use to deflect the accusation of authoritarianism. If you adopt the right words, it’s easier to convince yourself that you’re the good guys even as you’re acting like the bad ones.
I want to take a shot at explaining how this works.
The most important thing to understand about woke politics is that it is not a conventional form of illiberalism, it is better thought of as a type of “illiberal liberalism.” It involves making a set of political demands that are fundamentally illiberal, but then articulating them in a way that fits the conventional structure of liberal political discourse. Because of the way that their complaints are packaged, the woke are able to brush off criticism of their tactics.
Take an issue like freedom of speech. There are various versions of this traditionally liberal virtue; predominant among them, is that those who hold this belief are opposed to content-based restrictions on speech. In the old days, lots of politicians didn’t really believe in freedom of speech, as many among the ruling class maintained straightforwardly illiberal views.
Consider, for example, the aftermath of the “police riot” that occurred during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. The Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, put the blame for the violence squarely on the protesters. In those pre-feminist times, it was a common tactic for hippie protesters to provoke police by describing, in graphic detail, the various sex acts that they intended to perpetrate on the wives and daughters of the forces of order. Humphrey found this intolerable, and so defended police violence in the following terms:
The obscenity, the profanity, the filth that was uttered night after night in front of the hotels was an insult to every woman, every mother, every daughter, indeed, every human being, the kind of language that no one would tolerate at all. You’d put anybody in jail for that kind of talk. And yet it went on for day after day. Is it any wonder that the police had to take action?
This is good-old-fashioned illiberalism. Someone said something outrageous, something intolerable, and so needs to be punished for it. If you insult the police, you can’t complain if you get beat up. According to Humphrey, it was the content of what the protesters said that justified throwing them in jail.
What I find striking about this example is that people who want to censor speech don’t talk this way any more, because it is such an obvious violation of liberal principles. Modern enemies of free speech have found ways to formulate their demands for punishment in ways that violate the spirit, but still respect the letter, of those very principles. Most obviously, they take advantage of certain exceptions to the general prohibition on content-based restrictions.
Anyone who has studied free speech issues or read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty will of course be familiar with these exceptions. The biggest one is that, while it may not be permissible to prohibit the expression of an idea, any particular episode of speech can be prohibited if the performance of the speech act is likely to bring serious harm to some other person. Mill, for example, famously suggested that while it was permissible to publish the opinion that “corn dealers rob the poor,” chanting that slogan in front of an agitated mob outside the corn dealer’s home is another matter entirely. The latter can be prohibited, because it is likely to cause harm to the corn dealer.
While this caveat may seem reasonable at first glance, it creates all sorts of problems, precisely because the concept of harm is not well-defined. Notice that in Mill’s example, the speaker does not directly harm the corn dealer. The speaker rather incites the mob, and it is members of the mob who then pose a threat to the corn dealer (and that threat may never materialize).
This loophole is the one that has been taken advantage of most aggressively by the woke left to push for restrictions on speech. When they come across something they don’t like, rather than calling for censorship on the basis of content, they will instead attempt to restrict it on the grounds that it causes harm. Of course, they are smart enough to realize that the mere fact that it upsets them is not enough to qualify as a harm. So they posit a causal connection to a more serious physical or psychological harm. For example, students who are trying to censor the expression of ideas in the classroom will claim that the discussion makes them feel “unsafe,” or that it threatens their mental health. What is crucial about this move is that it allows them to call for illiberal actions (i.e. censorship or punishment of speech) on grounds that are, in principle at least, not illiberal.
Consider a concrete example of this. My own academic discipline was rocked by a cancel-culture scandal in 2017, involving an article published by the Canadian philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in the journal Hypatia. In the article, Tuvel upset a lot of people by asking the awkward question why, if it’s all just socially constructed, we accept the claims of people who want to switch genders, but not those who want to switch races. What ignited the real controversy, however, was not the article, but rather the attempt by hundreds of academics to cancel it, by signing an online petition demanding that the journal retract the piece.
This recent trend of demanding the retraction of controversial academic work is a perfect example of illiberal liberalism. Traditionally, the way that philosophers have responded to journal articles they disagree with is to write their own articles criticizing the view. Demanding that the journal retract the paper is an entirely different tactic. On the surface, it is not illiberal, since academic journals are committed to publishing material that meets a certain standard, and are committed to retracting work that is subsequently shown to have fallen below that standard. And yet at the same time, it is clearly punitive. Having published a journal article that subsequently had to be retracted is a major stain on a scholar’s reputation, and could easily serve as an obstacle to being granted tenure.
In the case of Tuvel’s paper, the purpose of the online petition was obviously punitive, since the case for retraction was non-existent. It was clearly a demand for censorship (something illiberal), but it was presented under the guise of a demand for retraction (something consistent with liberalism).
In the petition letter, the central argument for retraction was made in terms of the “harm” caused by the article, as well as the claim that its publication was “dangerous.” Many wondered how an article published in a feminist academic journal, dealing with an entirely abstract argument about identity and social construction, could possibly cause harm. In its defence, some of the signatories pointed to the high rate of suicide among transgendered individuals, claiming that anyone seeking to ask questions or to debate their claims was putting them at risk of self-harm.
This argument is obviously spurious. The suggestion that upsetting someone who belongs to a social group with an elevated suicide rate should count as a “harm,” sufficient to justify restrictions on speech, is not a defensible conception of harm. Young white American men who own guns also have an extremely high rate of suicide, and yet no one worries much about hurting their feelings. More generally, expanding the category of harm in this way makes it so broad that practically any action can be construed as harmful, and therefore completely undermines freedom of speech. This argument was obviously being gerrymandered to prohibit the expression of a specific view that certain people found offensive.
What is crucial though is the form of the argument. By pointing to these ephemeral harms, those who are trying to engage in censorship of speech that they disagree with are nevertheless able to convince themselves that this is not what they are doing. The appeal to harm is a “fig leaf” argument, in that it conceals their true motive from others, but also, one senses, from themselves.
This analysis allows us to better understand some of the strange “snowflake” behaviour that one sees among young people of a certain political persuasion. Explicitly or implicitly, they have internalized the idea that in order to get other people punished for doing things you don’t like, you have to claim that they have harmed you. This is why they are so quick to claim injury (e.g. damage to their mental health, fear for their safety, etc.), in circumstances that a normal person would shrug off. They are like soccer players trying to draw a penalty. It’s not a “culture of victimhood,” on the contrary, it is more often an act of social aggression, since these performances of injury are typically carried out, not to attract sympathy, but rather punish and control others.
This is also why HR departments have become an important vector for illiberalism. At my own university, for example, staff at the Office of Accessibility Services have attempted to censor the curriculum in certain philosophy courses. The logic of this is not difficult to see. Students realize that they are not going to get authors or texts banned by appealing to the faculty. So instead they go to their disability services counsellor and claim that they cannot attend class when certain authors are being discussed, because they feel unsafe. Staff have no particular commitment to academic freedom, and so are happy to take up the cause.
HR departments aren’t full of cultural Marxists, they’re a liberal fig leaf used to cover up these fundamentally illiberal impulses. Most HR professionals have no particular ideology, they are just extremely averse to conflict, and think that the easiest way to make a conflict go away is for the person who is saying the thing that is upsetting other people to stop saying it.
As a member of Generation X dealing with young people, I sometimes feel like a hockey player watching a soccer game, trying to figure out whether the players are completely hamming it up, or whether they actually are that delicate. The answer is probably somewhere in between. I have no doubt that many young people truly are lacking in psychological resilience, but it is important to recognize that there are also important political motives at work that encourage them to act this fragile.
It is equally important to recognize the futility of calling them “left fascists” or authoritarian. Not only do they brush off the accusation, but it encourages them to double down on the snowflake behaviour,because it’s precisely by claiming injury that they deflect the accusation of intolerance.
Joseph Heath is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
A Palestinian-American speech pathologist in Austin, Texas, has filed a federal lawsuit for losing her job after refusing to sign a pro-Israel oath. Bahia Amawi is an Arabic-speaking child language specialist who had worked for nine years in the Pflugerville Independent School District. But she lost her job last year after she declined to sign a pledge that she would “not boycott Israel during the term of the contract” and that she would not take any action that is “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel.” We speak with Bahia Amawi and Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He is representing Amawi in her lawsuit against the Pflugerville Independent School District and the state of Texas.
Protesters gathered on May 29 – June 7 to protest the killing of George Floyd
Last year, Bill Barr and others directed that Lafayette Square be cleared of protestors who were exercising their 1st Amendment rights so then-President Donald Trump could walk across the street to stand in front of a church for a political photo-op. The ACLU filed suit on behalf of protestors and journalists that were assaulted by law enforcement officers while they cleared the way for Trump’s political stunt.
In a troubling move, the Department of Justice has now urged the judge to dismiss the case, claiming that Trump, Barr and other government officials have immunity from this particular lawsuit. This video presents an argument for why the suit should not be dismissed but instead should proceed to the discovery phase to, at a minimum, determine if Trump and Barr were acting within the scope of their official governmental duties when they ordered the area cleared – shutting down the protestors’ exercise of their 1st Amendment rights, for a presidential photo op.
In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Apparently, I had endangered our newspaper’s relationship with the LUPD. Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.
This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr. (who took a very micromanaging interest), meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I even dreamed we could eventually persuade the administration to let the Champion go independent from its supervision. I was naive.
Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that
- required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review.
- Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article;
- they added and deleted whatever they wanted.
- Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” The form also states that the students understand they are “privileged” to receive “thoughts, opinions, and other statements” from university administrators.
What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life. Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school). This “culture of fear,” as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story — most of them anonymously, to protect their jobs or their standing — worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.
By 2016, Liberty’s efforts to limit free expression were already well-established. (“The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” Falwell told the New York Times last year for a story about privileging Liberty’s financial growth over its academics.) But the school’s methods became even more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Donald Trump early that year, according to multiple current and former faculty members. “The closer you get to the president’s office,” says former history professor Brian Melton, discussing a chilling effect on campus, “the worse it becomes.” Falwell’s staff now operates masterfully to squash challenges to his views and his rise in national political influence.
The dissent that did exist — from off-message campus speakers, insufficiently sycophantic board members, student activists and our newspaper staff — was ruthlessly neutralized. Liberty, founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.
Falwell, 57, possesses a certain Orwellian gift for painting Liberty as a bastion of tolerance where alternate viewpoints are not just permitted but encouraged. In March, he attended the signing of Trump’s executive order on college free speech and later claimed on “PBS NewsHour” that Liberty was inclusive of all ideas because it had invited Jimmy Carter to deliver its 2018 commencement address and Bernie Sanders to speak in 2015 at the assembly that students are required to attend twice a week. After Falwell learned last month that I was writing this essay, he posted a column on Liberty’s site disputing “sensational stories . . . that we do not allow opposing views.” He wrote, “If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that there will be a strong and critical response to this article by a few former students and a handful of national media determined to paint Liberty in a completely different light on these issues.”
His Twitter account is a much better reflection of his approach to dissent. Falwell’s profile announces that “Haters will be blocked,” and several students who have disagreed or argued with him on Twitter have met this fate. Falwell outright lied on the platform to Sojourners Web editor Sandi Villarreal — who is now my colleague — when he said he’d removed a Champion op-ed criticizing Trump’s “locker room talk” defense because there was simply not enough room on the page. (The piece was already laid out on the page when he pulled it.) In fact, much of Falwell’s message control has to do with safeguarding Trump.
Mark DeMoss was something like Liberty royalty. His late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, gave $20 million to build DeMoss Hall, the school’s main academic building. Mark was also an alumnus, a former chief of staff to university founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and eventually a public relations executive who counted Liberty among his clients. He won a seat on the school’s board of trustees in 1991 after serving as Liberty’s spokesman and became the board’s executive committee chairman in 2008.
In January 2016, days before Trump was scheduled to speak at Liberty, Falwell emailed DeMoss asking whether he should endorse Trump for president. DeMoss says he recommended against endorsing anyone, and Falwell thanked him for the “great advice.” Falwell, at the speech, held back his imprimatur. But a week later, he anointed the billionaire with his support. DeMoss was horrified. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Falwell seemed to take the rebuke in stride, saying he was “disappointed” in DeMoss but understood “that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views.”
Within a few months, though, DeMoss would be gone. The night before a Liberty board meeting that April, the executive committee, including Falwell, convened without DeMoss to vote on a motion to oust him from his role as chairman. DeMoss says that his criticism of the endorsement was the cause. (Before the meeting, Falwell had called him a pawn of rival campaigns.) DeMoss resigned as a trustee days later, on April 25, 2016, citing “a lack of trust.”
A week after that, Liberty changed the sign on DeMoss Hall to “Arthur S. DeMoss Hall,” making clear that the structure honored the father and not the wayward son. The message to faculty and students was clear: If you challenge Falwell, you will be not only removed but erased.
The culture of Liberty is governed by lists of principles. According to the Faculty Handbook, for instance, professors are expected to “promote . . . free market processes” and “affirm . . . that the Bible is inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters.” One cause of perpetual insecurity at Liberty is the school’s militant refusal to award tenure to any faculty member (outside the law school, which must offer it for accreditation). Instructors are instead hired on year-to-year contracts; during the spring semester, they find out whether they will be coming back the next fall.
The result is constant, erratic faculty turnover. One recently fired teacher describes the spring as a cycle of stressed-out, fearful professors wandering into each other’s offices to ask if they had their contracts renewed yet. “If you’re a conservative Christian in the academic world, the chances of you getting a job are nil in many areas,” says Melton, who worked at Liberty as an associate professor for 15 years before resigning because of what he described as the school’s surveillance and fear tactics. “The administration knows that, and . . . they wield that very effectively, keeping people quiet.”
Late-notice faculty removals have also become more commonplace, according to Melton, stemming in part from Falwell’s stated desire to tame the teaching corps. “He considers the faculty to be disposable beasts of burden,” Melton says. Last summer, 14 professors at Liberty’s School of Education were suddenly told that their contracts would not be renewed as part of what former Liberty spokesman Len Stevens called a “reorganization.” This June, a dozen faculty members at Liberty’s School of Divinity were notified that their contracts would not be renewed. By that late in the year, it is too late to find another job in higher education for the fall.
For former faculty members, Liberty’s culture of fear can live on. The school often requires terminated professors to sign a nondisclosure agreement if they want their severance packages, several told me — a practice that is extremely uncommon in higher education, according to Robert Bezemek, a California lawyer who represents labor unions at universities. (As Melton puts it, “They force this NDA on you by leveraging the ability to feed your family against you.”) Even former teachers who hadn’t signed NDAs told me they feared that talking to me on the record would somehow get them blacklisted from jobs elsewhere or imperil their friends who still work at Liberty. One thought my request to speak with him was a trap, calling my previous connection with the school “fishy.” When I contacted another for an interview, she warned me, “The university is on to you.” I confess I harbor a certain paranoia, too, from years of being watched at the Champion. Melton and several other current and former members of the faculty told me that they believe the administration surveils everything they do on Liberty’s server, tracking when instructors complete a task late and searching for evidence of “disloyalty,” as a former professor put it. Another onetime instructor declined to use his university-issued laptop because he thought Liberty had equipped it with spyware.
One cause for alarm came just before Trump’s inauguration, when then-Provost Ronald Hawkins ordered all campus faculty members to fill out an anonymous survey rating how politically and socially liberal they were on a scale of 1 to 5. “We are interested in how we compare with other institutions on political and social views,” Hawkins’s office said in a follow-up email to faculty members. But, according to a former professor who talked with others in her department, many initially refused to take the survey out of fear that if a department had too many left-leaning professors, the administration might target it for more oversight or even firings. There is no evidence of Liberty firing a faculty member explicitly for his or her political beliefs, but everyone I spoke to believed that the school could easily manufacture some other pretense. “There is zero trust between the administration and faculty,” Melton says. FIRE, a nonprofit that fights for free speech on campus, put Liberty on its 2019 list of the 10 worst colleges for freedom of speech.
Things aren’t much better for the 15,000 students on campus. In 2009, Liberty withdrew funding and recognition for its College Democrats chapter because, as Mark Hine, the senior vice president of student affairs, put it, the national party defends abortion, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported “the ‘LGBT’ agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.” A.J. Strom, who graduated in May, tells me that several students wanted to revive the College Democrats but no faculty members were willing to advise them, without which Liberty will not recognize a student club. “They said they would love to sign on but that if Jerry saw their name on the club application, they would be fired,” Strom says.
Student leaders have consistently helped administrators enforce the culture. After the Charlottesville rally in August 2017, members of Liberty’s Student Government Association drafted a statement expressing solidarity with Heather Heyer, the protester murdered by a neo-Nazi, and all people demonstrating against white nationalism. Then-SGA President Caleb Johnson refused to release the message and send it to university administrators for fear of what Falwell might think. (Johnson said in an email this past week that the statement’s author was “a self-described ‘Never-Trumper’ ” and that “we would not allow the platform of Liberty Student Government to be improperly used by a political activist with obvious ulterior motives.”) “There’s 100 percent an atmosphere of fear at Liberty,” says Caleb Fitzpatrick, who was then the student government’s speaker of the House and helped draft the statement. “There was a need to avoid being seen as a liberal or progressive, or even being different.”
In September 2018, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, Liberty invited conservative provocateur Candace Owens to speak at an assembly. A few days before her visit, Owens tweeted that the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault were “making it up.” In response, Addyson Garner, then president of a libertarian club on campus, organized a rally to support victims of sexual assault, called #LUforMeToo, which would occur right after the Owens speech. The day before, Jacob Page, then the student body president, summoned her to his office, where he and Vice President Derek Rockey pressured her to cancel the event, Garner says. She left the office in tears, but she and her fellow organizers decided to protest anyway. About 25 students attended, a rare show of defiance on a campus that discourages political dissent. (In an email this past week, Rockey said he thought students should attend a public dialogue on these topics rather than stage a protest. Page said he and Rockey “support bringing awareness to victims of sexual assault” but “felt it was unproductive to engage in partisan protests.”)
Guests at the school who deviate from the prescribed philosophy can be targeted, too. In October 2017, the anti-Trump pastor and writer Jonathan Martin arrived at the invitation of the Christian musical duo Johnnyswim, who were performing on campus that night; Martin also announced on Twitter that he would lead a prayer meeting with students the next morning. Falwell took it as an unauthorized protest, and the LUPD sent three armed officers to remove Martin from campus, telling him he’d be arrested if he returned. Martin tweeted that it was “evidently in response to my strong criticism of @JerryFallwellJr’s alignment not only with the darkest contours of Trumpism, but expressly with Steve Bannon & the alt-right he represents.” Falwell told the Champion that Martin’s forcible removal was “a matter of safety.”
A similar episode unfolded in 2015 when Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty alumnus and Christian writer, was disinvited to speak on campus after authoring an article critical of Hobby Lobby, the company permitted by the Supreme Court in 2014 to deny its employees contraceptive health-care coverage. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is close with Falwell. “You don’t seem to remember who your friends are,” Merritt remembers Falwell saying over the phone.
One afternoon in April 2016, when I was still a cub reporter in my sophomore year, I received a one-sentence email from Deborah Huff, our adviser: “need to talk to you about SG,” the subject line read; I should call her that night. She copied the editor in chief, a senior. I was clearly in trouble.
“SG” stood for Scott Garrett, a traditionalist conservative who represents Lynchburg in the state legislature. According to records I had found through the Virginia Public Access Project, he owned millions of dollars in stock, some from companies that lobby lawmakers in Richmond. A few days earlier, I interviewed him for the Champion about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his assets.
After dinner, I called Huff. She sounded annoyed. When I described my reporting to her, she told me the Champion would not run my story, because Garrett was afraid that the article would hurt his reputation. The message was clear: I had no business heckling Liberty’s friends and allies. (“I don’t remember the incident in question,” Garrett emailed me this week when I asked him for a comment. “And I don’t understand why I would say the article would hurt my reputation because there was no conflict of interest.”)
Out of fear that arguing with her would end my career at the paper — she selected which students would advance to editorships — I apologized for looking into Garrett’s finances and assured her that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again. I understood that her job, and by extension mine, was to protect our righteous, evangelical university. Before becoming a Liberty teacher and then supervisor of the Champion, Huff worked for the Fundamentalist Journal, a now-defunct Falwell-owned periodical. I didn’t see defending the faith or protecting Liberty as the main purpose of journalism. But in the face of a mentor I trusted, I believed I must have been in the wrong.
Looking back on the emails from that episode three years later, I’m embarrassed by my naivete — and my willingness to abandon a scoop with obvious journalistic merit. The scales began to fall from my eyes as, over the next 18 months, I saw how in every issue of the Champion the administration strategically manipulated or erased stories. Huff discouraged us from following leads that might disrupt the image of Liberty as a prestigious, respectable evangelical institution. In pitch meetings, she made it clear that the Champion would not cover Liberty scandals, even those that appeared in mainstream news outlets (such as the Falwells’ secret business relationships or the wave of Liberty alumni who sent back their diplomas after Falwell defended Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white-nationalist Charlottesville rally).
By the time I became the Champion’s editor, the censorship I hoped to stop was already shameless. In February 2017, I wrote an article on a higher-education task force that Trump had asked Falwell to lead. Falwell emailed me his personal edits, removing every quote from an expert concerning possible conflicts of interest that Falwell created by accepting the position (in the end, the task force was never formed). Months later, Huff ordered that my story about Martin’s expulsion from campus include lines about how Liberty is inclusive of different political beliefs, in the face of obvious counterevidence. An administrator spiked a news report about an on-campus swing dancing club that was temporarily banned. When film students drafted a petition in early 2018 objecting to “The Trump Prophecy” — a hagiographic tale about a firefighter who said he had prophesized Trump’s election, which Liberty students were compelled to produce in order to receive their degrees — faculty at the film school crafted our coverage into a fluffy bit of PR highlighting students who looked forward to working on set. Champion reporter Jack Panyard was so disgusted, he removed his byline from the piece. Then there was sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column about “locker room talk” after the “Access Hollywood” video came out; Falwell blocked it from publication.
This interference frequently caused shouting matches with, and passive aggressive emails from, administrators. “Too bad the editor and chief of The Champion penned this editorial for the homecoming edition without any effort to learn all that is being done at Liberty to prevent and react appropriately to sexual assault,” Liberty General Counsel David Corry wrote to Falwell and Huff about my column on campus sexual assault. Instead of sticking up for the journalists she supervised, Huff emailed me to complain that I did not “make sure Liberty was separated from the conversation or address what Liberty does that is different than other schools.” Later that day, the piece was removed from the website without my consent. (In his preemptive statement last month, Falwell seemed to address these episodes. “In the past few years, some students screamed ‘censorship’ when they didn’t get their every word published in our campus newspaper,” he wrote. “But that standard isn’t even attained within the newsroom of commercial newspapers.”)
In the wake of these run-ins, members of our staff often gathered in my office to daydream about taking the paper independent or grouse about Huff, whom we felt was gaslighting us. What kind of newspaper adviser would denounce our attempts to keep Liberty accountable and make us repeatedly apologize to administrators for trying? By this point, it was clear that the principles of investigative journalism I was learning in class were verboten when it came to Liberty itself. The Champion could never be an avatar of press freedom or truth-telling.
I grew up in a politically conservative household and was active in my denomination; my values changed at Liberty as I embraced a more inclusive and open vision of the church. My views of Liberty, and of the values I saw Falwell profess on a daily basis, changed as well. I considered transferring schools or resigning from the paper. The weekly fight for the right to publish was exhausting. Still, I decided to stay because I saw that, on the occasions we won — when we either persuaded administrators to leave an article alone or worked around their objections — we sparked dialogue among students on Twitter and in classrooms that challenged Liberty’s status quo. But ultimately, our fraught relationship with our overlords was untenable, and something had to give.
The end finally came for the Champion when a left-leaning faith group, the Red Letter Christians, organized a “Lynchburg Revival” in April 2018 to protest Falwell’s support of Trump and what the group called “toxic evangelicalism.” Two days beforehand, Liberty’s police department notified RLC leader Shane Claiborne that he would be arrested if he set foot on campus. The Champion had already decided to cover the event, but the stakes were higher now. Huff told us it would be too controversial for print, but the other editors and I didn’t think we could ignore it.
The day before the gathering, Falwell sent an email to Erin Covey, our assistant news editor: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” When we explained our dilemma to RLC organizers, they tipped off a reporter at the Religion News Service, which ran a piece detailing Falwell’s censorship. Covey gave on-the-record quotes. Panyard, who was set to succeed me as editor in chief in a few weeks, briefed the reporter on background, as did I. (Vox also picked up the story and amplified it, and I imagine it galled Falwell to be depicted as an insecure tyrant in a liberal publication.)
The school’s response was swift. Falwell convened a tele-meeting with Bruce Kirk, who was then dean of the School of Communication, and our entire staff. They reprimanded us for talking to the press, and Falwell justified his censorship by arguing that the Red Letter Christians were “not keeping with the values of the university.” Then he spoke candidly for the first time about, as he saw it, the virtues of censoring us: “That’s what you kids are going to run into when you get into the real world and start working for for-profit newspapers. That’s what they’re going to expect of you, and I want you to learn that while you’re here.” Kirk, who was sitting with us for the meeting, chimed in, agreeing with Falwell. Being censored by a higher-up in the media industry is “just a part of life,” he said. (Before he began at Liberty, he worked for a local news station operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.)
After the meeting, I felt sick. I hadn’t said a word while Falwell flayed us for trying to practice basic journalism and act with integrity. I went into my office, closed the door and waited until most of the staff had left the newsroom. Then I sat down at my desk and wept.
A week and a half later, Kirk called Panyard and Covey into his office and told them they were being let go as part of a “reorganization.” Nobody else was affected; they’d been fired. It was the most aggressive and direct action the administration had ever taken to silence the Champion. I was not fired — I was a lame duck anyway — but I resigned and refused to take part in the production of the year’s final edition. I cleaned out my office that same day. Soon after, I learned I would be the last student editor in chief of the Champion and that from now on the paper would be run directly by the school. (Kirk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.)
Even at Liberty, there are still those who publicly reject Falwell’s diktats. A petition supporting Mark DeMoss won more than 70 student signatures when Falwell ousted him in 2016. During the presidential election, free speech lived a little when Liberty United Against Trump, a student group, scored national media attention for its stance that the school did not uniformly approve of Falwell’s endorsement. It said it accumulated more than 2,000 student signatures for its statement.
Panyard, the deposed editor, launched a new independent newspaper, the Lynchburg Torch, with the help of other refugees from the campus weekly. In the past year, it has published stories that the Champion’s overseers would have blocked, such as a report on LGBTQ students who oppose Liberty’s position on same-sex relationships. Addyson Garner put on another rally this year to support queer Liberty students after transphobic comments from Falwell and his wife, Becki. (“We’re raising her as a girl,” Becki Falwell said of their granddaughter Reagan, as her husband looked on. “We’re not letting her have a choice.”) Dozens of students participated, according to Garner and posts on social media. It was the first time I had ever seen the rainbow pride flag flown openly on Liberty’s campus. The school is changing.
But in significant ways, it is not more tolerant, and it certainly does not celebrate “the open exchange of competing ideas” that Falwell described in his column. In a discussion with the incoming Champion staffers after I left, Kirk said, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.” The students who recall a more open time at Liberty, before Trump, have now graduated. All those who remain chose to go to Falwell’s school after he endorsed Trump, forming a much more compliant student body that generally accepts and even supports Falwell’s crackdown culture.
I graduated last year. Since then, I’ve tried to put Liberty — and the stress and self-doubt that officials there saddled me with — behind me. But I still fume when Falwell spews dumbfounding conspiracies online or retweets a bigoted rant from Trump, and I still become uneasy when I see my diploma, which is sitting in a cluttered drawer at my parents’ house. I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought? When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know.
After being released from prison to serve the balance of his sentence in home confinement, Bill Barr got word that Cohen was finishing up a book about Donald Trump. Barr’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) gave Cohen an ultimatum: stop writing/talking/posting about the president or go back to prison. Upon seeking clarification of the conditions being proposed by the BOP, Cohen was returned to prison. Cohen filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contending his imprisonment by Barr was illegal. Today, a federal court judge agreed, ruling that Barr/BOP retaliated against Cohen for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
His executive order aimed at social media companies should be ignored.
Last week Twitter began for the first time to suggest that some of President Trump’s tweets might lack a factual basis. It did so by attaching warning labels to messages in which Mr. Trump made false claims about mail-in ballots. The labels were not to the president’s liking, so he complained about them, accusing Twitter of “interfering” in the 2020 presidential election and “stifling” free speech.
Mr. Trump is free, under the Constitution, to complain all he likes. But he didn’t stop there. He also issued an executive order, which named Twitter numerous times, meant to potentially expose the company to considerable legal liability by weakening the legislative protections that social media platforms enjoy for user conduct. Before issuing the order, Mr. Trump warned on Twitter that Republicans “will strongly regulate” social media companies or “close them down” if they continue to “silence conservatives voices.”
By retaliating against Twitter for what it said in its warning labels, Mr. Trump violated the First Amendment. Official reprisal for protected speech, as the Supreme Court has put it, “offends the Constitution.”
It is crucial to stand up to this kind of bullying. For the sake of what remains of America’s constitutional order, Mr. Trump’s executive order must be regarded by all law-abiding parties as null and void — as “no law at all,” as the legal maxim goes. To act otherwise, to give it one iota of influence, is to grant the president an alarming authority he is not supposed to have: to use the power of the state against speech with which he disagrees.
The two government agencies responsible for carrying out the executive order — the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — should politely ignore it (or in classic Washington style, put the matter under indefinite consideration). By design, neither agency has a legal duty to obey the president. Their chairmen, Joseph Simons of the F.T.C. and Ajit Pai of the F.C.C., cannot be fired for disagreeing with Mr. Trump, and they have a higher duty to uphold the Constitution.
Those targeted by Mr. Trump’s order — Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and any other host of content on the internet — should take this as an opportunity to demonstrate that they cannot be intimidated by groundless threats. Twitter, to its credit, has taken this path, having declined, so far, to budge. Facebook, less honorably, has reacted to the threats by taking great pains to assure the White House that it thinks it wrong to fact-check politicians. That may be the company’s genuine position, but its assertion in the face of threats is cowardly.
It is worth noting that the problem with the executive order goes beyond the issue of retaliation. The order is also what the law calls a “prior restraint” on the speech of other social media companies that might consider adopting policies similar to Twitter’s fact-check labeling. In addition, the order is an effort to rewrite a congressional statute — the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is the source of the liability protections at issue — which is a power the presidency does not have. Finally, the order evokes statutory authority that the Federal Communications Commission lacks and asks the Federal Trade Commission to take actions that are likely to violate the Constitution.
In short, the order is a legal dumpster fire. Any second-year law student could tell you this, and in a more responsible administration, the White House Counsel’s Office would regard it as its duty to prevent such an order from seeing the light of day. But the order was issued, and the danger is that even if and when it fails in court, it may nonetheless have succeeded in its goal of intimidating social media companies into not doing what the First Amendment gives them the right to do.
This is not to say that Twitter’s labeling and fact-checking policies necessarily strike the right balance between censure and tolerance of user conduct. The speech policies of internet platforms have been disputed and discussed at length since the 1990s, and for good reason: Getting content moderation right is not easy. Different platforms approach the problem differently.
But no one who believes in the importance of free speech wants the president, equipped with the censorial power of government, to be able to dictate what speech policy should be followed by social media companies nationwide. Independence in such matters has now become the equivalent of the editorial independence of the press. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, both now clearly part of the media, need to show that they will not be cowed by illegitimate threats.
After two years of apologizing to critics, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are changing their playbook. WSJ’s Jeff Horwitz explains why Facebook is tying its identity to free speech.