Liberty University is pursuing criminal trespassing charges against two journalists who entered the campus against school rules to report on the the university's decision to welcome students back to the campus from spring break.
Liberty's president Jerry Falwell Jr. said last week during an interview with conservative radio host Todd Starnes that he is pushing for the charges against Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for The New York Times. MacGillis and Rendleman allegedly entered Liberty's campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, over the past weeks to cover the situation after nearly 2,000 students returned to their dorms amid the ongoing pandemic.
As universities and colleges across the country closed their campuses and ordered students to move out, Falwell announced on March 16 that Liberty would allow students who wish to live in their residence halls to do so. He said that by keeping the campus open, Liberty is able to house all the international students who are unable to return home due to travel ban, as well as commuter students who have no better place to live.
In accordance with Virginia's public health restrictions, Liberty has moved most of its courses online, capped gatherings in lecture halls and gyms at 10 people, and closed the campus to visitors since March 23. "No Trespassing” signs have been posted at the entrances to help ensure that only students, employees, prospective students and their families, and those with official university business are allowed on campus, according to a press release.
The New York Times and ProPublica published their stories in late March, which included quotes from Liberty students and employees who voiced concerns about keeping the campus open. Liberty called the the Times report "false and misleading."
"Dr. Thomas Eppes, who was quoted in the Times’ story, denies he ever told the reporter that Liberty had about a dozen students were sick with symptoms that suggest COVID-19," read a press release. "He gave figures for testing and self-isolation that are consistent with Liberty’s numbers but the New York Times preferred to go forward with sensational click-bait that increases traffic."
"It’s so hypocritical for them to come to our campus, which is doing everything right," said Falwell on Todd Starnes's radio show. "They come to our campus from New York, Washington, or wherever the hotspot is, and put our students at risk."
"So we feel like, we’re not only going to file defamation suits, but also have sworn warrants out for their arrest for trespassing," he added.
Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the New York Times, argued that Rendleman should not face charges for simply performing journalistic practices.
“We are disappointed that Liberty University would decide to make that into a criminal case and go after a freelance journalist because its officials were unhappy with press coverage of the university’s decision to convene classes in the midst of the pandemic,” Murphy said in a statement.