Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. speaks during Liberty University's 43rd Commencement Ceremony on May 14, 2016. Photo by Joel Coleman, courtesy of Liberty University

Why we banned Jonathan Martin from Liberty University

The following is a statement from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., sent to RNS in response to a commentary by evangelical pastor Jonathan Martin on his removal from the university's campus last week:

(RNS) — Of everything published about this tempest, the best observation came from my wife, Becki:  What if someone you had never met announced on social media that they were going to come into your living room, invite others, and have a "prayer meeting" after stating publicly that your home is the most hostile environment to the gospel in the U.S.? Wouldn't you call the police and have the stranger removed from your home?

That’s the position we were in last week when someone named Jonathan Martin, who had attacked Liberty University on social media, invited his supporters to a demonstration on Liberty’s campus to bring about change. For security reasons, we had to block his access to our campus. 

JONATHAN MARTIN: Why I was banned from the campus of Liberty University

Liberty University has a longstanding tradition of not allowing uninvited demonstrations or protests on campus. Liberty is a private institution and its campus is private property. Our students expect Liberty to protect them from unwelcome disruptions to their educational experience. Members of the Liberty University community are always welcome to engage in peaceful debate, intellectual inquiry and protest, but for public safety reasons, organized events by outside groups require advance notice and participating in the appropriate application process. 

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The Liberty University Police Department continuously works to enhance security measures on campus. As part of that effort, it has been monitoring social media and noticed that a person named Jonathan Martin was attempting to stage a protest on Liberty’s private campus on Twitter.  He said he would be “coming by Liberty soon with a bunch of friends.”  

An investigation revealed Mr. Martin’s protest event was being planned without any prior authorization or consultation. Mr. Martin is not a student, faculty member or employee of Liberty University. 

There are facility use protocols for those who are not members of the University community to schedule events on the campus. Those protocols take into account safety and security, as well as schedule conflicts and costs. Absent such pre-planning and authorization, an event promoted to the general public on social media has the potential to be a security risk. Given the late hour of the notice, the only effective way to prevent the unauthorized public event from happening the following morning was to issue a trespass warning to its organizer. 

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Mr. Martin was spotted on campus the night before his planned even at a concert.  After he enjoyed the concert, Liberty University Police Department formally took the opportunity to inform him that he was not welcome on campus and that he would be arrested for trespassing if he returned. This was done in a professional and matter-of-fact manner, including taking photographs of Mr. Martin.

Mr. Martin’s planned protest in front of the library ended up attracting 13 students who, as members of the University community, were permitted to hold a small event. Mr. Martin did not threaten violence and we do not believe he is a violent man but, if Liberty began allowing uninvited outside groups to protest on campus with open invitations on social media, the next group might be a violent mob of anarchists. 

In light of the climate of protests associated with campuses across the country, Liberty University takes seriously its obligation to preserve and maintain campus safety and security. Liberty believes we owe it to our students to protect the educational environment that they have invested in.  Liberty often invites responsible speakers with viewpoints contrary to those in leadership and will continue to do so but Liberty will not allow uninvited outside protestors to invade its campus.

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While University community members can freely make arrangements for their events, those who are not members of the University community have a higher burden to be granted access to Liberty University’s facilities for their private purposes. Even so, from time to time the University has made places available for outside groups to stage protests. Typically, however, those groups are directed off campus, especially where there are no tie-ins with a student organization or other member of the University community. 

Mr. Martin is not a member of our University community and simply has no right to organize a demonstration here on our campus.  Liberty is a private school, on private property. Go somewhere else if you want to protest. 

It may be possible that Jonathan Martin knew his unauthorized event would ultimately not be permitted to occur on the private property of Liberty University but he simply hoped to garner more attention to his cause by having his efforts stopped. 

So be it.  The judgment was made that it was safer to stop the event before it started than to attempt to turn away an unknown number of people who traveled to Liberty’s campus. Either option likely gives Mr. Martin’s cause the publicity he apparently seeks. The University cannot be concerned with whether its actions provide additional oxygen to either side of a debate but rather must be concerned about safety and security of its campus. 

If Liberty were your home, I think you would agree.

(Jerry Falwell, Jr. is president of Liberty University. The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not reflect those of Religion News Service.)