Betsy Devos

In this July 16 photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. Two House Democrats have accused DeVos of ignoring allegations of censorship and civil rights violations at Liberty University.

A pair of House Democrats have accused Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of ignoring allegations of censorship and civil rights violations at Liberty University because of the institution’s close relationship with President Donald Trump.

In a letter Monday, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D- Md., argue Liberty’s honor code violates a recent presidential executive order and federal civil rights laws because it places “extreme restrictions” on student speech and relationships between LGBTQ students.

“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 congressmen wrote.

Monday’s letter, which includes additional allegations unrelated to Liberty, asks DeVos to hand over records involving investigations of free speech violations to the House by Oct. 21.

It is unclear if DeVos will comply. A spokesperson for DeVos did not return requests for comment.

In a statement Tuesday, Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. said the congressmen’s letter demonstrates “a fundamental lack of understanding of the scope and purpose” of federal laws governing private universities.

“Unlike most of its counterparts in the United States, Liberty University actually promotes free speech and free expression. Using its own resources, Liberty University invites conservatives and liberals, as well as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Independents to its regular student Convocation forums and commencement ceremonies,” Falwell said.

At the heart of the letter are claims DeVos is improperly giving cover to Liberty, an institution the congressmen describe as politically aligned with the Trump administration.

Falwell is a vocal supporter of the president and has said Trump offered him the job of education secretary shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have spoken at Liberty graduation ceremonies in recent years.

Levin, the vice chair of the House Education Committee, and Raskin, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, wrote that Liberty is in violation of an executive order issued in March directing federal agencies to ensure colleges promote open debate as well as Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal money.

The letter takes aim at Liberty’s honor code, known as The Liberty Way, for banning students from consuming “media and entertainment that is offensive to Liberty’s standards and traditions” and prohibiting “sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.”

The congressmen also allege Liberty has suppressed student journalism, referencing a 2016 decision by Falwell to remove a student-authored opinion piece from the university newspaper criticizing then-candidate Trump for boasting of sexual assault.

Falwell told The News & Advance at the time the column was “redundant” because the paper already was printing a letter urging support for Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton.

In their statement, Liberty officials pushed back against allegations of censorship and discrimination, saying the honor code “is fully consistent with the proper role of a Christian institution” and the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from intervening in speech decisions made by a private institution.

In the statement, Falwell notes the alleged incidents of censorship occurred long before Trump’s executive order but also argues the episodes would have not violated the order had it been in effect.

“The ‘censorship’ wrongly claimed by the congressmen was simply Liberty University exercising its editorial control over the Liberty Champion, the newspaper it owns, publishes and pays the staff. Even though most of that staff consists of student employees, it is not and has never been a ‘student newspaper,’ ” Falwell said.

“It is indeed a shame that two federal legislators can be so out of touch with the basic civics concerning the laws about which they wrote the secretary,” Falwell said. “Even so, Liberty University will respond to any inquiry of the Department of Education to set the record straight.”

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Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547. 

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