As COVID-19 cases sprang up across the country and college after college closed its doors halfway through the spring semester, one institution bucked the trend. In March, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia announced that it would bring students back to campus following spring break to complete the semester, a decision for which they were quickly slammed by the media. Now, the institution is suing the New York Times for defamation.
Today @LibertyU sued @nytimes because they came to our campus from actual virus hotspots and made up completely false claims about COVID-19 cases at Liberty.— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) July 15, 2020
In fact we finished the school year without a single reported case of COVID-19 on campus.
In an article titled, “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too,” Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson wrote that the university underwent an outbreak of the coronavirus upon reopening. The article states that “nearly a dozen” students had COVID symptoms and that the school had ignored government guidelines in reopening. Liberty has denounced these claims as “intentionally false and defamatory.”
According to the university, there were no known cases of COVID-19 on campus, nor were there “nearly a dozen” students with COVID symptoms, both of which the reporter was informed. Liberty also says the reporter was aware that the school was in full compliance with government directives.
That didn’t matter to the New York Times, however. The report sparked outrage across the internet, with outlets like Vox decrying a “public health disaster in the making,” the Daily Beast quoting an emergency room doctor saying that “people will die” if the college reopened, and BuzzFeed News describing Liberty students as “confused and concerned” by the decision. As a result of the article, the university says it has and continues to sustain “enormous harm to its business and reputation,” for which it presumes damages.
“She [Williamson] was there as a producer and director 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,” the university asserted in its complaint.
Liberty University says that by the close of the school year not a single resident student had contracted the virus. In the months that have unfolded since the New York Times article, some in the media have come to acknowledge that the hysteria was unwarranted. In May, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed in which the author noted, “The doomsday predicted when Mr. Falwell announced Liberty students would return after spring break never came to pass.” An article in the Washington Examiner also noted, “Despite some 750 media reports that Liberty University was writing COVID-19 death sentences for some 1,100 students returning after spring break, the Virginia Christian college recorded no cases with students on campus and is now holding itself up as the ‘model’ to follow in the fall.”
Despite the time and expense, school president Jerry Falwell, Jr. told Sean Hannity that the school is taking the lawsuit “all the way.”
“[W]e 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,” he said in a statement. “Politically-motivated attacks by the mainstream news media that defame and libel conservatives and Christians should not be allowed in the United States of America and will not be tolerated by Liberty University.”