Late last month, the New York Times and ProPublica published stories detailing Jerry Falwell Jr.s decision to buck coronavirus advisories and restart some operations at Liberty University, even as the pandemic exploded across the U.S. and a number of Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested COVID-19. This week, the Trump-loving evangelical leader is attempting to exact his revenge. On Wednesday Falwell announced that campus police have reportedly issued arrest warrants for journalists from both outlets. Alec MacGillis, who wrote the ProPublica story, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer who works for the Times, have both been charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
The warrants themselves, however, appear to be somewhat flimsy. They have no connection to the Lynchburg, Virginia, police department, where the school is based, though they do cite the city's general district court. Katie Townsend, the legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement to Business Insider that the warrants appear to be intended to harass journalists who were simply, and rightly, doing their jobsreporting on the impact of Liberty Universitys decision to partially reopen during a pandemicand to intimidate other reporters from doing the same type of reportinga sort of mall-cop jurisprudence.
That doesnt seem to concern Falwell, who fittingly broke the news by sending copies of the warrants to Todd Starnes, an evangelical radio host who Fox News parted ways with last year after he entertained a guests comments on his show accusing Democrats of worshipping a child-sacrificing pagan god. They were trespassing, so we went to the local magistrate, weve sworn out warrants for their arrest, he told Starnes in an interview. He also sought a warrant for Elizabeth Williamson, who wrote the Times story, but was told there was not enough physical evidence to have one issued. Falwell is demanding that both the Times, which he called fake news, and ProPublica, which he called a George Soros publication, retract their stories.
However, Falwell doesnt seem to have reached out to ProPublica at all. Dick Tofel, the outlets president, told me that he hasnt heard at all from Liberty or any authorities in the commonwealth of Virginia regarding the arrest warrants or libel suit threats. More importantly, weve not heard any suggestion from the university that there is anything inaccurate in what we published, he added. Tofel went on to describe the ProPublica piece, which reported on health and safety concerns from faculty, students, and staff amid social distancing violations at the campus, as an important story about the most important story in our times, an enormous public health problem, in which the university was acting at the time against&the universal recommendation of authorities. Since the article was published, the university has altered its practice, he pointed out. That recognizes that what they were doing was potentially endangering people.
So far, Falwells main beef appears to be with the Times. In its article, the paper cited a physician who it said was in charge of Libertys student health service. In response, a press release on Libertys website stated that the physician, who Falwell says holds no official role, requested corrections to the paper claiming he had never told the reporter that Liberty had about a dozen students sick with coronavirus symptoms. (In fact, the Times report quoted the physician as saying that three students had been tested for COVID-19, one of whom tested positive and lives off campus.)