Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, told the “Todd Starnes Radio Show” on Wednesday that the school is ready to file a defamation lawsuit over a New York Times article he called “materially false” that focused on the school’s coronavirus response.
Falwell said a “demand letter” is going out to the paper to issue a clear and “apologetic correction” to the March 29 report that he said targeted Liberty University because it is conservative and Christian. He said if the paper refuses, “lawsuits will be filed.”
He said the school has also obtained a sworn misdemeanor arrest warrant for some involved in the story, including the photographer and Propublica for allegedly disregarding No Trespassing signs posted around campus and exposing his students to potential outside contamination.
The article in question was written by Elizabeth Williamson and published on March 29, titled, “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too.”
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The paper reported that Falwell’s decision to partly reopen the school “enraged residents of Lynchburg,” and reported that nearly a dozen students there had symptoms of COVID-19. At least one student tested positive, the report said.
Falwell blasted the report as “rushed” and false. He said the paper gave him two hours to respond before the story was published online and then quoted a local doctor with no affiliation to the school about the number of possible infections. Falwell said the doctor has come out to say that he was misinterpreted.
The New York Times did not immediately respond for this report.
Falwell said that his school essentially fell into line with what many major schools were doing at the start of the outbreak. Dorms remained open for students returning from spring break in case they had nowhere else to go. He said the school took every measure to assure his students’ safety and employed online classes. He said the dorms there are about 10 percent filled.
He said students’ safety was the school’s motivation to report Propublica and the freelance photographer to the local magistrate.
“I don’t think God wants Christians to just sit back and not protect what they believe in and protect the people that they have a fiduciary responsibility to protect,” he said. He said it is a shame that the paper would “take advantage” of the crisis to politicize and attack Christians.
Falwell wrote an op-ed in the Daily Caller on Tuesday and claimed that he is “no stranger to smears from the news media.”
“Still, in the midst of one of the worst crises our country has ever faced, even I am shocked at how vicious and hypocritical the attacks on Liberty University have been.”
He wrote that the school took “prudent” measures to protect its students and went “above and beyond” orders on social distancing handed down by federal and state leaders.
Falwell claimed that the New York Times misled the public about how the school dealt with the crisis. He wrote that the news outlets “even spread a dangerous and consequential narrative that Liberty is contributing to the pandemic.”
The Times’ report pointed out that the school has nearly 46,000 undergraduate students and a nearly $2 billion endowment. The report noted that the school is “a welcome and generous presence in this Blue Ridge Mountain region” and pointed out that the school donates goods to the community and its medical students conduct free health screenings.