Liberty University is suing the New York Times for defamation after claiming that the national paper published false stories about its response to Covid-19.
The article at the centre of the controversy boasts the headline 'Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too' and reports that a number of students were sick with coronavirus while on campus.
The suit, filed in a Lynchburg Circuit Court on Wednesday, named New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson and photographer Julia Rendleman as defendants and cited stories related to Liberty’s decision to reopen their campus at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit reads: “Defendants' defamatory statements about Liberty caused enormous harm to Liberty's business and reputation for which damages are presumed.
“The foregoing statements, individually and collectively, give rise to the false and defamatory impression that Liberty recklessly caused a COVID-19 outbreak and got students sick by disregarding state health directives and encouraging students to return to the Liberty's campus after spring break.”
The defendants have also been accused of trespassing on Liberty's campus. "Between March 23 and March 29, 2020, defendants Williamson and Rendleman entered Liberty's campus in defiance of Liberty's March 23 trespassing mandate," the complaint reads.
“Williamson and Rendleman willfully entered Liberty's campus at the direction of the New York Times for the sole purpose of gathering photos and information to include in the defamatory Articles published by the New York Times on March 29 and March 30.”
Liberty's President Jerry Falwell Jr, who is a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, said in a statement: "They target us because the University is a conservative and Christian institution. While this fulfilled their ‘clickbait’ business model, it also violated the law in many ways.
"Therefore, we are holding the New York Times accountable for their malicious and false reporting and their violation of the measures we took to protect our students.”
Falwell also alleged that the Times misrepresented a doctor who they quoted in one of their reports on the number of infections at Liberty.
"I think they got their information from a doctor who has a practice 10 miles away from Liberty, who had seen a few Liberty kids who had a cold and upper respiratory problem,” he explained. “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 noted that he attempted to get the NYT to amend their headlines, but that they responded by publishing more false reports. "They actually doubled down and lied some more,” he added. “And so we had no choice. They left us with no choice but to defend our reputation because it scared parents.”
The suit accuses the paper of spinning "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 [Donald] Trump.”