Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, said on Wednesday that arrest warrants had been issued for journalists from The New York Times and ProPublica after both outlets published articles critical of his decision to partially reopen Liberty’s campus amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photocopies of the two warrants published on the website of Todd Starnes, a conservative radio host, charge that Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for the Times, and Alec MacGillis, a ProPublica reporter, committed misdemeanor trespassing on the Lynchburg, Va., campus of the college while working on their articles.
Falwell and Liberty, one of the most high-profile evangelical schools in the country, have come under fire for welcoming students back to campus after the school’s spring break despite the pandemic, while nearly every other college in the country has ordered students off campus.
In an interview on Starnes’ show, Falwell ripped a New York Times report that nearly a dozen students were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The Times cited “the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service,” who said three students so far had been tested for coronavirus, with at least one student, who lives off campus, testing positive.
More students were self-quarantining, the Times reported, a move caused, Falwell said, by where they had spent spring break. Falwell said the physician, who he says has “no official role at Liberty,” had “immediately issued a correction” to his statements to the Times.
A statement on the school’s website says the physician denies “he ever told the reporter that Liberty had about a dozen students were sick with symptoms that suggest COVID-19” and that he “gave figures for testing and self-isolation that are consistent with Liberty’s numbers but the New York Times preferred to go forward with sensational click-bait that increases traffic.”
Falwell defended his decision to allow students back to campus, saying there was “maybe” less than 10 percent occupancy on campus and that some who remained on campus were international students or were afraid to go home and live with high-risk family members.
Falwell, a fierce supporter of President Donald Trump, was among those who were portraying reaction to the virus as overblown as recently as a month ago, accusing opponents of the president of weaponizing the outbreak to hurt him politically and suggesting the virus might be the work of North Korea and China.
When Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia commanded higher-education institutions in the state to stop in-person teaching last week, it was viewed by some as a swipe at Liberty, which said it had canceled its remaining in-person offerings.
Both articles by the Times and ProPublica quoted students or professors who suggested that social-distancing guidelines, designed to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible virus, were not being adequately practiced on campus.
Falwell cast his decision to seek a case against the journalists as a move to protect his students, asserting that the journalists had probably come from coronavirus hot spots such as Washington, D.C., or New York, and that by being on campus they had put remaining Liberty students at risk. He also complained that Liberty was being singled out because of its status as a religious school.
He contended that there were witnesses for both cases of alleged trespassing, telling Starnes that there were no-trespassing signs posted at “every entrance” barring everyone from the campus except students, faculty and staff, or those with official university business.
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, said he’d not seen or heard anything of the warrant aside from having been pointed to it on Starnes’ website.
David McCraw, in-house counsel for the Times, said in a statement, “Julia was engaged in the most routine form of news gathering: taking an outdoors picture of a person who was interviewed for a news story.” McCraw said Rendleman had been invited to campus by one of the students interviewed for the article.
“We are disappointed that Liberty University would decide to make that into a criminal case and go after a freelance journalist because its officials were unhappy with press coverage of the university’s decision to convene classes in the midst of the pandemic,” he added.
There is no warrant for the author of the Times article, Elizabeth Williamson, because the magistrate judge did not find enough physical evidence to charge her, Falwell said. But he threatened civil defamation lawsuits against Williamson and another unidentified media outlet if the Times didn’t make a “clear apologetic correction” to its report.