Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, is bringing a $10 million defamation lawsuit against The New York Times, reporter Elizabeth Williamson, and photojournalist Julia Rendleman. The university’s complaint concentrates on an article the Times published on March 29, entitled, “Liberty Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus, Too.”
“When there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in the Lynchburg area yet,” said university president Jerry Falwell, Jr., “the New York Times sent a reporter and photographer from actual virus hotspots to violate our campus containment zone and make up a completely false claim that we had created a hotspot on campus.”
Falwell believes the paper targeted Liberty because it is Christian and politically conservative (Falwell is an outspoken supporter of President Trump and his wife is a member of Women for Trump). He said, “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.”
Liberty Files Defamation Lawsuit Against The New York Times
“On March 29, 2020, defendants published an article that intentionally misrepresented that Liberty had ‘reopened’ its campus after spring break and suffered a COVID-19 outbreak as a result,” said the university.
When preparing her report (which is copied at the end of Liberty’s complaint), Williamson spoke to Dr. Thomas W. Eppes, Jr., and described him as “the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service.” According to Williamson, Eppes said that “nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Three were referred to local hospital centers for testing. Another eight were told to self-isolate.” This information, combined with the article’s headline, is enough to bring a defamation lawsuit in the eyes of the university since it implies that multiple Liberty students had contracted COVID-19 when in fact they had not.
“Not a single campus resident student had been diagnosed with COVID-19 at the time the defendants investigated and published their story,” said Liberty. “Not a single campus resident ever tested positive for COVID-19 after spring break, let alone one [sic] returning from spring break.” The only person in the student population who tested positive for the virus was an online student who was not on campus “before, during, or after spring break.”
Williamson’s article also reported that Falwell had led Lynchburg’s mayor and city manager to believe that he would close the campus “to virtually all students,” but then decided to remain open. Liberty alleges it is a mischaracterization to say the university closed and then decided to reopen. Rather, the university says it continued hosting some students during spring break and then gave other students the freedom to decide whether or not to return to campus after the break. The university claims it never violated any public health directives and that its position on allowing students on campus did not change.
It should be noted that the mayor and city manager did publicly express that Falwell had been unclear and that they had understood the university would not permit students to return after leaving on break. Mayor Treney Tweedy said, “I was very surprised and disappointed to later learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back.”
In addition to how Williamson reported Eppes’ words, Liberty took issue with her talking to him at all, the reason being that he is not the doctor over the university’s student health services and has no “official role at Liberty.” Rather, Eppes is “the president of Central Virginia Family Physicians, which runs both the health clinic on Liberty’s campus as well as a health clinic off campus.” Eppes allegedly directed Williamson to Dr. Joanna Thomas, the physician who is actually over student health services.
Williamson reportedly never spoke to Thomas, nor did the reporter make “any meaningful effort to confirm the information with anyone at Liberty.” Instead, Liberty says Williamson belatedly sent university official Scott Lamb 12 questions at noon on Sunday, March 29. Even though Williamson informed him the story would run the next day, it was published online later that afternoon before Lamb could respond.
That same day, Lamb, as well as Liberty’s general counsel, demanded the Times retract the story. The paper refused and continued to do so in the following weeks, including after the university’s general counsel sent a letter with corrections on April 8.