Liberty University hit The New York Times and two of its employees with a $10 million defamation suit on Wednesday after the nation’s paper of record allegedly implied the conservative Christian college caused its students to come down with COVID-19.
The university alleges in the 94-page suit filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court that a March 29 NYT story, titled “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too” by Elizabeth Williamson, “intentionally misrepresented that ‘Liberty’ had reopened its campus after spring break and suffered a COVID-19 outbreak as a result.” It also lays blame on photographer Julia Rendleman, who took pictures for the story.
The story claimed “nearly a dozen” Liberty University students were sick with symptoms “that suggested Covid-19,” after they had been allowed to return to campus after spring break. Their primary source was Dr. Thomas J. Eppes, who they claimed “runs Liberty’s student health service.” Shortly before the story ran, University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, took flak from local authorities, who called him “reckless” for allowing students to take their online classes on campus.
Contrary to the NYT report, the suit claims, Eppes did not run Liberty’s health service and, in fact, told them that the nearly 12 students exhibited symptoms that were not indicative of COVID-19. “Simply put, defendants’ claim that ‘Liberty Brings Back its Students and Coronavirus, Too’ was made up,” the suit said, later adding that NYT set out “to engineer a specific fictional tale that portrayed Liberty and its President as a caricature the New York Times’ liberal audience would love: backward, irresponsible, anti-science, responsible for getting people sick in a pandemic, and closely tied to and mirroring President Trump.”
JUST POSTED: “We need help to go home.” I visited Liberty U. as the consequences of Jerry Falwell's decision to reopen the campus amid a pandemic came home to roost. https://t.co/sglQgqzqo8
— Elizabeth Williamson (@NYTLiz) March 29, 2020
Falwell said of The New York Times to Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday night, “Not only are they a bigoted bunch of liars, and also [a] BuzzFeed type click bait publication now, but they’re also stupid, because they came on campus. We had 25, at least, ‘No Trespassing’ signs everywhere, and they were dumb enough to take pictures of the signs and publish them.” Falwell claimed that the journalists were forced to cut a deal with the local prosecutor to avoid jail time.
“They were here for a few days,” Falwell continued. “I think they got their information from a doctor who has a practice ten miles away from Liberty, who had seen a few Liberty kids who had a cold and upper respiratory problem. And none of it was anything like COVID symptoms … he told the reporters to go and talk to our on-campus doctor at our clinic on campus, and they wouldn’t do it. They didn’t talk to us.” Falwell went on to say that the university had no choice but to sue after the NYT refused to retract or correct any part of their reporting.
“They picked on the wrong conservative,” Falwell told The Washington Examiner. “It’s just not right for the mainstream media to lie about and target conservative Christian organizations just because of their faith and because of their political beliefs, and we’re going to make an example out of them.”
NYT Senior Vice President of Communications Eileen Murphy said in a statement Wednesday, “We are confident that our story accurately portrayed the reopening of Liberty University and the public health concerns that the reopening raised. We look forward to defending our work in court.”
Earlier this week, former NYT Opinion Editor Bari Weiss resigned from the newspaper, claiming she was openly mocked by her co-workers for failing to toe the line of liberal orthodoxy and that the publication cares most about catering to clickbait and Twitter. She wrote in her resignation letter, “[A] new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”