Liberty University’s Lawsuit Against Falwell is an Admission of Guilt

By Marybeth Davis Baggett
Liberty Title IX
Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo by Taber Andrew Bain/Creative Commons)

To read the lawsuit Liberty University brought against Jerry Falwell Jr., you might get the impression that the evangelical Christian school’s board fell prey to a master manipulator whose veneer of piety obscured a vulgar reality.

Specifically, the complaint chronicles Liberty’s roots in the Moral Majority, founded by Falwell’s televangelist father, highlights the strict code governing student conduct and underscores the responsibility of all members of the community to hold others to account. The suit then runs down the many ways in which Falwell spurned the school’s founding fundamentalist spirit and purported mission.

The filing recounts Falwell’s questionable dealings with Giancarlo Granda, the pool attendant Falwell and his wife met in Miami; it accuses Falwell of a lavish lifestyle of clubbing and alleged excessive alcohol consumption; it details his sordid social media activity. All in all, the suit tells the story of a man who flouted the rules and of a board lied to and defied, hoodwinked by some seasoned subversive.

Requesting upwards of $41 million in compensatory and punitive damages, Liberty has charged Falwell with breaching his contract and his fiduciary duties and with conspiring to secure an unjustly advantageous contract that would shield him from the consequences of his transgressions.

Jerry Falwell Jr.
In this Nov. 16, 2016, photo, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. poses during an interview in his offices at the school in Lynchburg, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Clutching their pearls, the board claims that Falwell’s pattern of behavior “induced injury to Liberty’s enrollment, impacted its donor base, disrupted its faculty … and damaged Liberty’s reputation.” In this telling, the board is portraying itself as the aggrieved victim of Falwell’s machinations.

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As charming as this narrative is, it is far from honest. Don’t get me wrong. Falwell was a lamentable train wreck as president. Working for him the past decade took a toll on my soul. His behavior and character were steadfastly at odds with the stated mission of the school he was tasked with leading. 

Falwell’s social media history alone demonstrates he was anything but the “spiritual exemplar” the board supposedly expected. In fact, Falwell explicitly disavowed that role in an infamous set of tweets in June 2019. “I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs,” Falwell wrote, shifting responsibility for Liberty’s spiritual health to the school’s faculty, students and campus pastor. “While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.”

Earlier that year, he bragged in a university-wide convocation that when he got bored he liked to start Twitter fights (such as those he picked with politicians and Christian ministers, even faculty and Liberty parents).

For the school’s leaders to suddenly claim to be shocked at Falwell’s disdainful actions is culpably obtuse at best, willfully dishonest at worst. They were well aware that Falwell pushed out one of their own, Mark DeMoss, in 2016 for having the audacity and temerity to express an opinion at variance with Falwell.

For the school’s leaders to suddenly claim to be shocked at Falwell’s disdainful actions is culpably obtuse at best, willfully dishonest at worst.

They can’t pretend to have missed his remarks about Muslim terrorists, his belligerent political activism stamped with Liberty’s imprimatur, his censorship of the student paper, the Cinema Arts program’s support of a propagandistic film or his racially insensitive attack on the Virginia governor.

If “mockery and consternation in the media” were a genuine concern, why did the board say nothing about the school’s bad press through the years for students’ outsized reliance on federal student loans, for a culture of fear on campus, for callously cutting crucial programs and loyal faculty that weren’t making money fast enough for the university?

Prior to renegotiating Falwell’s contract, even a cursory Google search would have readily yielded a litany of other public relations debacles and nightmarish optics. Bombshell reporting from Brandon Ambrosino and Aram Roston from as early as 2017 gave the board the puzzle pieces that would later be joined to bring Falwell down. Yet they were remarkably incurious and conspicuously silent through that time.

Jerry Falwell Jr and Becki Falwell
Jerry Falwell Jr., right, answers a student’s question, accompanied by his wife, Becki, during a town hall meeting in 2018 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Here’s the crucial point that the lawsuit attempts to obscure: These leaders let Falwell behave egregiously and recklessly. They encouraged him even. Every time they ignored Falwell’s blatant public misconduct, with every dismissal of legitimate stakeholder concerns, at every unspoken assent to his outlandish and prodigious boasts of his own achievements, he was emboldened to go further.

Here’s the crucial point that the lawsuit attempts to obscure: These leaders let Falwell behave egregiously and recklessly. They encouraged him even.

If the board hopes to restore the school’s integrity and keep it on mission, its members must reckon with their own culpability in Falwell’s transgressions. For who else but the board, and specifically the executive committee, could hold him to account? The stronger they make their case about Falwell’s misbehavior, the more they incriminate themselves. Neither ignorance nor neglect absolves them.

Indeed, the damage from Falwell’s tenure is far more extensive than the lawsuit suggests. The former president put profits and power over people, twisting Christian theology and biblical passages to suit his purposes. He ruled Liberty with an iron fist and made dissent analogous to disloyalty. He left the school compromised and corrupted in the structures he established

There has been no mass exodus from leadership, no housecleaning in the administration, no clean sweep of the board. Falwell’s cronies remain in power and emulate his modus operandi.

Falwell did not inflict this damage alone. The suit attempts to advance a revisionist narrative, to scapegoat Falwell and cast the remaining administration as faultless.

For the spiritual health of the school, this redacted narrative cannot stand. The school’s leadership must own the roles they played in propagating and perpetuating the sin they now condemn with impunity and suffocating sanctimony.

Those who care about the name of Christ claimed by the institution simply must insist on real penitence, deep repentance and radical reform at Liberty University.

Marybeth Davis Baggett is a former English professor at Liberty University and two-time alumna of the school. She is co-author of “The Morals of the Story.” This story was first published in Religion News Service.



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11 thoughts on “Liberty University’s Lawsuit Against Falwell is an Admission of Guilt”

  1. Thank you Julie for your incitefull sharing of this important information. I have visited the campus in preparation for family attendees, thus it is so important to me and family. I still maintain my faith and trust in Liberty’s future as well as standing in today’s culture, but thank you again for presentations such as this.

    1. With respect, what in this article bolsters your faith and trust…or your high opinion of Liberty’s current standing, Mr. Devries?

  2. Thank you, Marybeth, for your clear reporting using appropriate prose. Your courage in continuing to hold Christian leaders accountable is commendable and may you continue in your example. As members of the body of Christ we all need to be willing to do the hard work of examining ourselves and those in leadership against the standard of a truly biblical, Christ honoring lifestyle and work ethic.

  3. Wondering why Ms. Baggett’s piece is not presented as an “opinion” piece—backed with evidence—an opinion to persuade Liberty to repent instead of acting like an offended party?

  4. lynspirationgmailcom

    Kudos to Marybeth for her courageous choice to speak up about the rampant, nauseating abuse of power within LU leadership circles. Exposing it is the first step toward accountability regardless of the inevitable rush to defend the indefensible by loyal (blind? naive? hardened?) supporters of Falwell, Jr. and/or LU.

  5. Not everything can be dealt with at one time. I think LU is wise to bring this lawsuit now. The writer begs to differ. Everyone has his own opinion.

  6. God says in Galatians 6:1 ” Brothers,if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

    Jesus says in Matt.18:15-17 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    In 2 Cor.10:3 – 6 God says ” For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

    There is no evidence of either Mr.Falwell or the Board members obeying God’s commandments,
    It should be pretty obvious that Mr. Falwell and the Liberty Board are secular men doing what secular men do; secular behaviour.

  7. Evangelical neo-Zealots are so easily deceived. Exactly like Trump worshipers. The world is watching and we will continue to hear from more people like Abraham Piper.

  8. You are correct, Stanley, the Lord said “there shall come in the last days scoffers…” (2 Peter 3:3-8).

    The fact so many people like Mr. Piper and yourself is the fulfillment of the very words you despise, ironic isn’t it?

    1. I don’t think Abraham P. is a confirmed “scoffer”, I think he will find his feet – remember what it was he dropped out of, and after being publicly subjected to one of those “restorations” there. But boards like Liberty’s bring in a maverick – I mean a maverick’s wife – for a “season” to give themselves an excuse to then follow that up with the newest subtle twist on manifest destiny. They have already abolished their critical thinking department. Legal rows have either been predestined / conspired / scripted, or at least budgeted for. A sort of role play game or unreality television.

  9. This is another good example of favoring growing the institution over emphasizing Christian values and growth.

    Falwell led the school to explosive growth and campus development. Since 2007, Jonathan Falwell has led the school to a smashing 85,000 person student body. The board constantly overlooked his personal and spiritual shortcomings just like a secular corporation or school gives a president a lot of slack if he or she can make budget, attract donors, and grow the student enrollment. The board negotiated his contract. The board chose a lawyer-developer and that’s what they got.

    If they want to alter the university’s spiritual course and don’t think he is the man to lead the school, that is the board’s prerogative. Pushing people out, censoring campus newspaper, getting even with critics, helping allies and punishing opponents, wading into political waters to keep that federal aid rolling in, trying to get supporters on the board, etc. Come on, that’s what university presidents do. The massive size of the organization and the huge budget aggravates and intensifies these internal politics. The stakes are so much higher. The bureaucratic in-fighting and maneuvering at universities is legendary in departments and administration both. Liberty University is as large any of the largest universities in the U.S. It is BIG. It has all the challenges of institutional bigness.

    I think the suit by the board is sour grapes. Pay him what you contracted and move on. Time to concentrate on the spiritual life of students and setting a better example in leadership. The board should be repenting.

    “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Js 4:17 (KJV)

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