Liberty Champion Sports Editor Joel Schmieg doesn’t normally write about politically controversial topics but felt he should address the “locker room talk” defense as an evangelical Christian close to the athletic community.
Schmieg was surprised when his column was pulled from the Oct. 18 edition of the weekly student newspaper after review by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
While Schmieg said Falwell censored him for criticizing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Falwell said he opted to pull the column from the sports section and publish a pro-Hillary Clinton letter to the editor on the Opinion page from a medical student. Publishing both the letter and the column, Falwell said Wednesday, would be “redundant.”
“After going back and forth, I decided we didn’t need two saying the same thing, using up valuable space,” Falwell said. “I decided to go with the medical student’s letter because it’s not a staff member. I just told them it’d be wise to just have one letter on that subject.”
Schmieg doubts that reasoning.
“I just personally think when I tried to use the same platform that Jerry did — being Liberty — I think that Jerry didn’t like that because it contradicts his views, and so he shut it down,” said Schmieg, a junior.
Schmieg’s column, which he posted on Facebook on Tuesday morning, challenges Trump’s defense of his 2005 “Access Hollywood” comments, in which the candidate describes hostile sexual behavior toward women he later dismissed as “locker room talk.”
“As a former male athlete, I know exactly what high school guys talk about when they think they are alone. 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 wrote in the column.
During the presidential campaign, Falwell personally has supported Trump through stump speeches in Iowa, robo-calls in Virginia, an appearance at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and on cable television hot seats.
In a Facebook post that sparked the online attention, including articles in The Daily Beast and Politico, Schmieg referred to a statement Falwell made last week as “amusing and extremely hypocritical” in light of the removal of his column, which typically publishes weekly in the Sports section.
“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 said in a statement Oct. 13.
That statement came after an anti-Trump petition written by a group of LU students gained support on campus and attention from national media. A group defending Falwell also emerged.
Content in the student newspaper is reviewed routinely before publication by the chancellor’s office, Falwell said, as the university is the Champion’s publisher.
The claims he squashed dissenting opinions are unfounded, Falwell said, because the point of view was represented in the newspaper.
“I think all those comments are just pure stupidity because I published the letter that was more harsh than the one that we took out,” Falwell said. “... If anybody can’t understand that, it’s just because they have a political axe to grind. I think it’s childish, and it’s very transparent what their real motives are.”
That letter described Trump's comments as "demeaning" and "dangerous."
"Accepting and normalizing language like Trump's has led to a culture on campuses and in communities across the country where men don't wait for consent," it said.
"... We need calm, collected leadership that will bring us all together. That's why I wholeheartedly support Hillary Clinton..."
Frank Lomonte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center, challenged Falwell’s argument against duplicating content.
“This guy was trying to bring a unique sports writer’s perspective to bear on the issue. In addition to the fact that I don’t believe that’s the real reason, it’s not even a great journalistic argument,” Lomonte said after reading the column.
While Falwell doesn’t examine every single newspaper issue ahead of time, his office long has reviewed the Champion before publication. Amanda Stanley, office of the president’s executive assistant, receives a Champion draft each Monday.
Generally Stanley, who often drafts official letters for Falwell, checks an early copy of the Champion for grammar and other copy errors. The paper doesn’t always have every story by the time it gets to her, she said.
“If I see anything particularly controversial, I’ll just pass it on,” Stanley said in a phone interview Wednesday.
This Monday, the draft included a note from the Champion asking for review on a group of articles related to politics, “and they needed approval on them,” Stanley said after Falwell brought her on the phone call with The News & Advance.
The front of the Oct. 18 edition included paired stories about Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson speaking at LU’s convocation during the past week. Falwell said he fixed a typographical error in the Pence article and added “like three words at some point about the campaign,” he said.
Falwell said he doesn’t regularly make editorial decisions, which are left to a faculty adviser and student staff members. Most of the articles that reach him include a request he add a quote, he said.
While Lomonte, head of the nonprofit legal aid advocate for student journalists, agreed Falwell is well within the law, he said it’s rare for even high school administrations to routinely pre-review student newspapers.
“I doubt that the board of trustees elects the president of the university to serve as the editor in chief of a student newspaper. That’s just not his job,” Lomonte said, reacting to accounts he’s read and a description of the review process.
Lomonte said, though, his organization deals with “hundreds and hundreds” of cases per year in which a high school and college leader removes an article critical of policy, board members or the administration. Knowledge of a review process, he said, tends to freeze student speech before it’s spoken.
“Just the existence of a review process is intimidation. The fact that someone who holds authority over you is going to pass judgment on what you write is inevitably going to intimidate people into censoring themselves,” Lomonte said.
In Schmieg’s three years, he said none of his stories had been pulled prior to this week. The reality of administrative review, he said, creates a culture of self-censorship. He expected this article to be published, though.
“I think that we all know what we’re getting into working at the Champion, so I think typically, we don’t write things we know aren’t going to get past the administration,” Schmieg said. “... Writers just don’t even attempt it.”