After backlash for his decision to reopen Liberty University’s campus amid the coronavirus pandemic, Jerry Falwell Jr., the school’s president, said arrest warrants had been issued accusing two journalists who covered the controversy of trespassing.
Falwell ― who has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, going so far as to characterize the response to the pandemic as an attempt to undermine President Donald Trump ― lambasted articles in The New York Times and ProPublica as “false and misleading.”
Falwell told conservative radio host Todd Starnes on Wednesday he intends to sue both publications for defamation and had gone to a local magistrate to swear out misdemeanor warrants against Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for the Times, and Alec MacGillis, a ProPublica reporter, accusing them of trespassing on the Liberty’s campus in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Elizabeth Williamson, the author of the Times’ piece, was spared a warrant, Falwell said, because the magistrate determined there wasn’t enough physical evidence to charge her.
Both outlets reported last month that some students and faculty members at Liberty, an evangelical Christian school, were concerned about their health and safety following Falwell’s decision to reopen the campus last month.
The Times, citing a physician who runs Liberty’s student health service, said at least a dozen students at the school were “sick with symptoms” that suggested the coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
Falwell said on the radio that keeping Liberty’s campus open was the “Christian thing to do” to provide international students and students with high-risk relatives at home with somewhere to go. He claimed that there were no students on campus with symptoms of the coronavirus, and that the university had put several measures in place to protect the well being of students and staff, including strict social distancing restrictions ― assertions that defied the facts presented in the two news articles.
Neither Liberty University nor the campus police sergeant who signed the warrants immediately responded to HuffPost’s after-hours requests for comment.
Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president, told Politico on Wednesday that he’d not received word of the warrant against MacGillis, aside from being told about the one posted on Starnes’ website.
David McCraw, an attorney for the Times, said the paper was “disappointed” by Liberty’s action and defended its photographer.
“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 told Politico. “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.”
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