Liberty University sued The New York Times for defamation on Wednesday, accusing the paper, and a reporter of crafting a “clickbait” story intended to mislead the public about a coronavirus outbreak at the school’s Lynchburg campus.
In a 55-page complaint filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court, the university takes aim at a March 29 story in which The Times reported about a dozen students living on campus were sick with symptoms suggesting COVID-19.
The lawsuit argues that reporter Elizabeth Williamson deliberately misrepresented a Liberty- affiliated physician who the school claims told the paper that nearly 12 students only showed signs of “upper respiratory infections.”
Lawyers for Liberty claim in the suit that an upper respiratory infection is not indicative of COVID-19 but milder illnesses like the common cold.
“There was never an on- campus student diagnosed with COVID-19,” the suit states. “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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said people with COVID-19 can experience a wide range of mild and severe symptoms, including congestion, sore throat and loss of smell. The novel coronavirus has also been shown to cause lower and upper respiratory tract infections, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The Times’ story was initially titled “Liberty Brings Back its Students, and Coronavirus, Too” when it was published online at 3 p.m. but later was changed that evening to “Liberty Brings Back its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too” — a sign the paper recognized the claim was false, according to the suit.
Liberty faced a flood of criticism this spring after University President Jerry Falwell Jr. invited students to return to campus dorms at the end of spring break, even as classes moved online due to the public health threat.
The New York Times was one of several national outlets that descended on Lynchburg to cover the school’s approach to the pandemic. Falwell has accused the paper of attempting to undermine him because of his close relationship with President Donald Trump.
“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,” he said in a statement and on Twitter on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for The Times said Wednesday the paper stands by its reporting and intends to fight the suit in court.
“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,” spokesperson Eileen Murphy said in an email.
In addition to defamation, the lawsuit also accuses Williamson and Julia Rendleman — a freelance photographer for The Times — of civil trespass for visiting Liberty’s campus without permission from school officials and despite signs barring visitors.
The defamation suit is not the first time Liberty has gone after The Times for its coverage of the school’s response to the pandemic.
After the March 29 story was published, Liberty police obtained arrest warrants for Rendleman and a reporter for ProPublica, accusing the two journalists of criminal trespass. Liberty police also sought an arrest warrant for Williamson but a magistrate determined there was not enough evidence to warrant charges.
Falwell later agreed to drop the case after consulting Lynchburg prosecutors.
The suit filed Wednesday demands more than $10 million in damages. Any money awarded to Liberty would be determined by a judge or a jury if the case goes to trial and Liberty wins.
Falwell told the Sinclair Broadcasting show “America This Week” with Eric Bolling on Wednesday that the university will donate any money it is awarded to charities fighting the pandemic.
“We’re not looking for money,” Falwell said. “We want to expose the New York Times for the liars and the Buzzfeed clickbait organization they’ve become.”
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.
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