WASHINGTON (RNS) — In a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, two Democratic congressmen are accusing Liberty University of enacting “extreme restrictions on student free speech” that go against a recent White House executive order designed to protect freedom of expression on college campuses. The lawmakers allege that DeVos’ department has failed to secure “free inquiry” at the school.
The allegations were part of a three-page letter sent to DeVos’ office on Monday (Oct. 7) by Reps. Andy Levin of Michigan and Jamie Raskin of Maryland. They accused DeVos and the Department of Education of acting to “restrict the free expression of ideas at the Department of Education and in institutions of higher education across the country.”
Raskin and Levin pointed to reports of the department barring employees from accessing the website of an organization critical of the department’s policies, but also pointed out a dissonance with an executive order signed in March by President Donald Trump that was touted as an attempt to protect free speech at colleges.
They argued the executive order is nothing more than “a tool to punish institutions with whom he disagrees,” and they pointed to Liberty University — an evangelical Christian school whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., is a stalwart supporter of Trump — as an example of an institution that has not faced repercussions despite the executive order.
“Despite Executive Order 13864, which directs the Department to ensure institutions promote free inquiry, you have failed to act in cases of suppression of ideas that involve the administration's political allies, such as Liberty University,” the letter says.
By way of example, Raskin and Levin noted that Liberty’s code of conduct bans LGBTQ relationships and that Falwell personally censors students, noting when he barred a student in 2016 from publishing an opinion piece in the school newspaper that was critical of Trump’s bragging about sexually assaulting women (it was later published in full by the Daily Beast).
“Given that Liberty's violations are public and longstanding, we are left to conclude that the Department's failure to act is deliberate and that it is only interested in enforcing free speech policies against institutions it deems unfriendly,” the letter read.
Falwell fired back on Tuesday evening, issuing a statement rebutting many of the congressmen’s claims and arguing that their letter “contains many false statements and erroneous conclusions.”
Falwell said that Liberty’s code of conduct is protected by religious exemptions and that its control over the school newspaper is protected by its status as a private university. He also noted that the actions listed in the congressmen’s letter happened before the executive order but that “none of them would violate it had it been in effect.”
The back-and-forth taps into a larger debate over free speech at U.S. colleges. Trump and other conservatives allege speech has been restricted at the University of California, Berkeley, and other liberal colleges that have disinvited conservatives from speaking on campus.
“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Trump tweeted in February 2017.
Meanwhile, Liberty University has long faced criticism of restricting the free expression of its students — including student journalists — when it comes to criticizing Falwell or Trump. In April 2018, then-Liberty student Erin Covey told Religion News Service that Falwell personally censored her attempt to cover a faith-based event for the Liberty Champion newspaper in nearby Lynchburg, Virginia, that featured speakers who were critical of Trump and Falwell.
Liberty University officials also reportedly threatened speakers at the same event with fines or jail time if they visited Liberty's campus to pray with students or Falwell.
Representatives for DeVos did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Representatives for Raskin and Levin said both congressmen were unable to comment as they were observing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.