Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., announced Wednesday that he is pursuing criminal charges against a New York Times freelancer and ProPublica for trespassing on campus while covering COVID-19.
“We actually went to the local magistrate, we’ve sworn out warrants for their misdemeanor arrest,” Falwell said on right-wing radio show, the “Todd Starnes Show.”
He added that there were “no trespassing” signs posted on every entrance to campus that warned off everybody except students, faculty, staff and people with “official university business.”
Falwell has been the subject of numerous reports, including from TPM, about his decision to reopen Liberty’s campus residence halls to students after spring break as colleges nationwide shuttered to slow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Falwell said during the show that he’d send Starnes photos of the warrants, which Starnes posted on his website.
The partial photos of the warrants appear to be signed by Sgt. Alan Wilkins, a detective with the Liberty University Police Department. Wilkins did not respond to a request for authentication.
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, told TPM that though there were reporters on Liberty’s campus to report out a couple of stories, he has received no word about the warrant.
“We’ve heard nothing about this, and we’ve not heard from the University or from the authorities in Virginia on this at all,” he said. “As the story indicates, there was reporting there on obviously the most important news story of many years.”
New York Times Senior Vice President of Communications Eileen Murphy expressed the outlet’s “disappointment” in Falwell’s action.
“Our freelance photographer was engaged in the most routine form of news gathering: taking a picture of a person who was interviewed for a news story,” she told TPM in a statement. “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.”
Falwell also promised coming “civil action” on defamation charges against New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson and NBC, along with two of its reporters, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins. He said that he attempted to get a warrant for Williamson as well, but that the magistrate said there was not enough evidence.
Murphy said that the Times has “heard nothing about a civil action.” NBC News did not respond to a request for comment.
“They forced us into a corner,” Falwell said. “I don’t think God wants Christians to just sit back and not protect what they believe in and protect the people they have a fiduciary responsibility to protect.”