2022 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

“The Liberty Way”: How Liberty University Discourages and Dismisses Students’ Reports of Sexual Assaults

About the Project

When former Liberty University student Elizabeth Axley told her resident adviser that she had been raped by another student after a Halloween party, the adviser told her not to report it. Instead, she suggested Axley pray. If Axley did report it, her adviser warned, she could be punished for breaking the school’s moral code of conduct, known as the “Liberty Way,” which prohibits drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex.

Axley reported her rape to the university the next day despite the warning. But instead of offering support or resources, the lead investigator interrogated her: Was she drinking? How much? Why had she gone to the party? She was also asked to sign a document acknowledging her possible violations of the Liberty Way.

Axley had taken dozens of pictures of her injuries that night and submitted them as evidence to the lead investigator. But when she went to review her file several months later, the photographs of her bruises and cuts were gone. She recalls the lead investigator explaining that the evidence had been removed from her file because it was too “explicit.”

“I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,” Axley recalls.

Axley is one of over 50 current and former Liberty University students and faculty members interviewed by ProPublica who described the institution’s systemic efforts to discourage victims of rape from coming forward and, in several cases, punishing or threatening to punish victims when they did.

Hannah Dreyfus, an Abrams reporting fellow at ProPublica, unearthed the stunning injustices faced by victims of sexual assault at one of America’s most prominent universities through months of detailed interviews, careful evaluation of corroborating evidence and the methodical collection of photo evidence, school records, medical records and police records.

Dreyfus even spoke to witnesses cited in Liberty’s investigations who told her they hadn’t said anything like what the university had characterized them as saying. “It is honestly scary that they twisted my testimony like this,” said one.

After reviewing what Dreyfus found, one of the authors of a federal law on universities and sexual assault told her, “I do not believe Liberty has a conception of sexual assault that is consistent with criminal law, and certainly not with federal civil rights and campus safety.”

Dreyfus tried and tried to get Liberty to respond to what she was finding. It never did. But shortly before we were planning to publish, a surprise text popped up on her phone. It was from the person who until recently was Liberty’s vice president of communications. Scott Lamb told Dreyfus he had just been fired for trying to encourage the school to respond to ProPublica and grapple with Liberty’s record on sexual assaults.

Lamb went on to detail what he described as “a conspiracy of silence.”

“Concerns about sexual assault would go up the chain and then die,” he told Dreyfus.