Liberty University is filing a $10 million defamation lawsuit against the New York Times after it “intentionally misrepresented” the college’s response to COVID-19.
Campus Reform previously reported on Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s handling of the coronavirus on campus in April, specifically highlighting how the New York Times singled out the private, evangelical university that is run by one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters.
Liberty faced harsh scrutiny over its response while other colleges that responded in much the same way got a pass.
The 100-page lawsuit refutes the claims made in several articles published by the New York Times, including an opinion editorial titled, “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response.” The suit claims that Falwell is painted as a science denier and “religious ultraconservative.” However, Falwell and Liberty University are currently not mentioned in the piece.
The New York Times also ran an opinion editorial titled “This Land of Denial and Death.” The piece characterizes Falwell as a science denier and claims that this disbelief led to the creation of “his own personal viral hot spot.”
The central piece of the lawsuit, however, is a “viral story” by New York Times feature writer Elizabeth Williamson, titled “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too.”
“The day after defendants published the story and made it go ‘viral’ with the sensational headline, ‘Liberty Brings Back its Students, and Coronavirus, Too,’ they changed the online headline to ‘Liberty Brings Back its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too.’” The suit argues that this alteration shows the “defendants’ understanding that their central claim was false.”
“Simply put, defendants’ claim that ‘Liberty Brings Back its Students, and Coronavirus, Too’ was made up. Their claim that Liberty ‘Reopened, and Students Got Sick’ was made up. Their claim that after purportedly reopening, ‘students started getting sick’ with ‘nearly a dozen Liberty students . . . sick with symptoms that suggest Covid-19’ was made up. And their claim that the ‘consequences’ of reopening had come home to roost’ in the form of a COVID-19 outbreak was made up,” the suit states.
Dr. Thomas W. Eppes, Jr. claimed to be the doctor who “runs Liberty’s student health service,” according to Williamson’s article and Twitter feed. However, Liberty says the piece “misrepresented” Eppes’ position with Liberty.
In a television interview with Sean Hannity, Falwell revealed that Eppes is a “doctor who has a practice ten miles away from Liberty.”
Eppes is not “directly involved in providing student healthcare,” the lawsuit states. Liberty further claimed that it instructed the New York Times to contact the person who does run Liberty’s student health services, Dr. Joanna Thomas. However, Williamson never did, according to the suit.
The suit also claims that the New York Times “misrepresented” comments Dr. Eppes made regarding the pandemic. Eppes said the exact “opposite” of what the news organization claimed in the piece, the lawsuit claims.
The Times reported that there were several cases of COVID-19 on campus when there were actually “no known cases,” according to Liberty.
The New York Times “omitted entirely Dr. Eppes’ further explanation that these students were not tested for COVID-19 because they did not meet the symptomatic criteria for COVID-19 testing” and “paraphrased” Eppes’ actual statement so that the news site could “spread their false narrative in a cohesive way,” the lawsuit alleges.
“There was never an on-campus student diagnosed with COVID-19. The only actual ‘viral’ element of this narrative that existed was the intense ‘viral’ Internet attention it generated for the New York Times’ website and for those paying to advertise on that website,” the suit states.
Williamson traveled from Washington D.C. to Liberty’s campus in order to interview students and faculty. The suit claims that Williamson and New York Times freelance photographer Julia Rendleman “trespassed” after ignoring “no trespassing” signs meant to keep “outside visitors” off-campus. Williamson then boasted about her visit to campus on Twitter despite the “no trespassing” signs posted to keep students and faculty safe from COVID-19, the suit alleges.
The Central Virginia Health District (CVHD) conducted two surprise inspections of the Liberty campus “during and immediately after spring break” to ensure accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 53. Liberty was in “full compliance with all applicable state restrictions concerning the pandemic.”
“All operations appeared to be in compliance with the governor’s emergency order, which becomes effective at midnight. We observed that all operations were carry-out only, no seating was provided, and onsite security guards — present at each location — were limiting the number of customers in line to 10,” CVHD Environmental Health Manager Jim Bowles stated.
The New York Times neglected to include this information in any of its pieces, Liberty said.
Williamson waited to contact Liberty for comment “until about an hour before publishing the story she had worked on for over a week.” This way, “there would not be time for it to comment on this claim in any informed way,” the suit claims.
A large portion of the suit is dedicated to explaining how the paper has “transformed” into a “social media production company” and runs on “clickbait.” Because Falwell supports Trump, Liberty has become an “obvious target” for the paper, the complaint states.
Because the New York Times published these stories, other news outlets picked up the story and reported the same “made up” narrative. Part VIII of the suit lists multiple articles published by other media outlets stating the “defamatory statements” made in the New York Times piece.
The virality of the piece by Williamson caused “enormous harm” and resulted in “lost enrollment revenue and the substantial costs incurred responding to and mitigating defendants’ false and defamatory allegations.”
Falwell described the New York Times as a “bigoted bunch of liars,” “dumb,” and “stupid” during his interview with Hannity.
Liberty is suing the New York Times on four counts, three of which involve alleged “defamation.” The fourth alleges “civil trespass” against the paper, Williamson, and Rendleman. An arrest warrant for Rendleman was issued following the trespassing incident in late March. The prosecutor decided to dismiss the case, but Rendleman has to receive Falwell’s permission return to the campus moving forward.
The university is suing for $10 million as well as an additional $350,000 in “punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs, and for such other and further relief as the Court deems just, equitable, and proper.”
“They have left us with no choice but to defend our reputation,” Falwell told Hannity.
“This has the potential perhaps to be a landmark case,” Hannity concluded.
Liberty University and the New York Times did not respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment in time for publication.
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