I live in Lynchburg, VA. People often let their minds take them to the home of Jack Daniels Whiskey but that is Lynchburg, TN. Lynchburg, VA is most often connected to Jerry Falwell. It is the city where Jerry, Sr. founded Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University. I often disagreed with Jerry Falwell, Sr. but I had a great deal of respect for his commitment to fight for the dream of the university and his beliefs.
Jerry, Sr. recently died and Jerry, Jr. has taken over as chancellor of Liberty University. With the younger Falwell now in a position of power, he has started trying to flex his muscles at the city government. It is not uncommon for the offspring and heir of an empire builder to attempt to make his or her personal mark on the world. A problem often arises when the second generation does not fully understand or appreciate what it took to gain such a position in the community or world.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. is rapidly burning bridges and risking the status of the university by playing political games. Using the age old tactic of creating an image of being the victim, Jerry, Jr. has begun attacking the very city that helped create his father's empire. His attacks have accused the city of not supporting Liberty University and in an email to the students said some in the community were "bleeding LU and its students."
During the November state delegate election, Falwell, Jr. got knee deep in attempting to influence the student vote. In a campus publication it was stated that all candidates from both sides were invited to speak at Liberty University. Even after numerous and well documented requests, the Democratic candidate was denied, by Jerry, Jr., the right to speak to the student body while Republicans were welcomed. It was proudly reported in a campus publication that on election day, the dean/president of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and some board members rode through campus in a truck decorated with Republican campaign signs, stirring up more votes. Shortly before the election, Falwell banned the student Democrat club from meeting on campus or being recognized as an official campus organization. Although I am not an attorney, these actions seem to be in direct violation of what is required for an institution to maintain its non-profit status.
In spite of how questionable young Jerry's antics already were, the leader of this Christian university decided to take it one step lower. He actually took a page out of Richard Nixon's playbook. He decided to secretly record a meeting with the city manager and mayor where there was some discussion about a zoning change for the university. Unfortunately, in Virginia it is legal to record meetings without all parties having knowledge of that fact. Only one person has to know it is taking place. I am not sure how much sense that makes, but that's how it stands.
The rest of the story gets a little sticky. When he wasn't happy about the speed with which a zoning request would be addressed, Falwell pulled out what he thought was his trump card- The Secret Tape. He attempted to bully the city and smear the mayor by releasing the tape. Despite no evidence on the tape to the support it, he claimed that the mayor had lied in the meeting and that's why he had to record it. Mysteriously but unsurprisingly, in Richard Nixon style, part of the meeting was missing from the tape and part of the audio was garbled. With an interesting choice of words, Jerry, Jr. explained that some of the tape was "corrupted".
Part of the fallout of this sad situation it what it has done to the reputation of the school and the students. In an attempt to achieve his goals, Jerry, Jr. ignored the idea of trust and ethics while sending a message that the end justifies the means. Student comments on a campus web site repeatedly talked about how bad it makes them and the school look. One student even complained about being used. Students who came for an education, ended up also being used as political pawns. There was further evidence of manipulating the student's vote on the secret tape. On section of the tape that was originally missing and only partly audible, Jerry, Jr. said to the mayor that if the city can get the zoning changed before the coming election, "I will tell the students to stay home."
Even as people expressed their shock, anger and disappointment, Falwell was quick to point out the legality of his actions. I can't argue with the fact that his actions may have been legal. The problem is that Rule 8.4 of the Virginia State Bar Association's own Rules of Professional Conduct, view actions such as these as unethical. Jerry, Jr. happens to be a lawyer licensed in the state of Virginia and the Bar holds lawyers to a different standard when it comes to such activities. Liberty University's head legal council was also in the secretly recorded meeting. I am sure they knew what they were doing was legal, but I guess they forgot about that whole ethical concept.
As we witness these questionable politically partisan activities combined with what the Virginian State Bar Association appears to classify as unethical activities, I wonder about two things. Is Jerry Falwell, Sr. rolling over in his grave and is Richard Nixon laughing in his?