Liberty University – the conservative Christian school that bans LGBTQ people and co-ed dancing, run by Donald Trump supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. – is suing the New York Times for $10 million for a scathing story about the school’s choice to stay open as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down other universities earlier this year.
“We’re conservative, we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked,” Falwell said about coverage of the school’s coronavirus policies earlier.
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In March, Liberty University announced that it would be staying open because Trump was going to handle the coronavirus pandemic like “a successful CEO.”
A letter to students promised that Liberty would put up “No trespassing” signs on the campus to protect them from the virus, but otherwise food service, athletic facilities, and libraries would remain open. The evangelical school claimed that local politicians “thanked us for making that decision.”
Several weeks later, the New York Times ran a story about Liberty University, claiming that a dozen students “were sick with symptoms that suggested COVID-19,” while others had fled the campus.
The Times also quoted Lynchburg, Virginia Mayor Treney Tweedy calling Falwell “reckless,” saying she tried to convince Liberty to close. The university had claimed that she “thanked” them for staying open.
In April, students had filed a class-action lawsuit against Liberty University, accusing the school of staying open as a scam to get money for room, board, and fees while not having to provide full services since students were leaving the campus.
Now Liberty is suing the New York Times for covering the story in the first place. The defamation suit says that the Times “made up” the story and that none of their students were ever diagnosed with COVID-19.
“There was never an on-campus student diagnosed with COVID-19,” the 100-page complaint says, according to the Washington Examiner.
“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 lawsuit says, making light of a pandemic that has killed about 140,000 people in the U.S. so far.
The lawsuit also accuses Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson and photographer Julia Rendleman of violating their “No trespassing” signs, the signs that they said would protect students and faculty from the virus.
“We are confident that our story accurately portrayed the reopening of Liberty University and the public health concerns that the reopening raised,” said the newspaper’s senior vice president of corporate communications Eileen Murphy. “We look forward to defending our work in court.”
On Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, Falwell called the Times “a bigoted bunch of liars.” He said that the reporter talked to an off-campus doctor who treated Liberty students instead of “our on-campus doctor at our clinic on campus.”