Two journalists are facing trespassing charges pressed by Liberty University after they pursued stories regarding the school’s decision to remain partially open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, ABC News reports.
Reportedly, ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis and New York Times photographer Julia Rendleman, visited Liberty University’s campus “without permission” back in March to unearth details about why the school decided to remain open, at least in part, and what life on campus looked like amid the global pandemic.
MacGillis' article, titled, “What's it Like on One of the Only University Campuses Still Open in the U.S.?” was published on March 26.
And on March 29, the New York Times published an article titled, “Liberty University Brings Back its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too,” featuring Rendleman’s photos.
After both stories were published, LU security forces reportedly collected witness accounts and decided to pursue criminal action against the reporter and photographer.
Elizabeth Williamson, who authored the March 29 NYT piece, is not facing trespassing charges as “eyewitnesses could not be found,” ABC News reports.
Arrest warrants for Class 1 Misdemeanors were signed by Virginia Magistrate Kang Lee against the two journalists, though the journalists have yet to be prosecuted. If convicted, the journalists could face up to a year in jail.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of the evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia, backed the charges, calling the journalists’ presence on the campus a safety issue. He noted that during the time of a global pandemic, outsiders should not be let in.
“When people are coming from known hot spots, we feel we owe it to our students and our parents not to let that happen,” Falwell said in an interview on Thursday. “The only way to send the message is to let them know they will be prosecuted.”
Both news organizations shared their responses concerning the matter.
ProPublica’s President, Richard Tofel, said that “what's really important is writing about a decision that goes against safety guidelines and puts people's health at risk.”
He added, “Bringing an action on trespassing charges seems something besides the point.”
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy expressed disappointment on Liberty for turning the matter into a “criminal case and go[ing] 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.”
Liberty had disputed the NYT's claim that “nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with COVID-19 like symptoms by noting that only one student not living on campus tested positive “and was last on campus two weeks before being tested.”
The university “has called for a retraction and threatened legal action.”
“We're confident in the accuracy of our reporting,” Murphy said concerning the NYT story as it “described contradictory statements by university leadership and personal attacks against critics of Liberty's policy.”
Similarly, an Associated Press photographer “was approached by a campus security officer, asked to leave and to delete all of the images he had taken at Liberty.”
After consulting with a supervisor, the photographer deleted the images — a decision the news organization said was wrong in retrospect.
“We don't delete photos or any other material at the request of an individual law enforcement officer,” said Sally Buzbee, the AP's executive editor and senior vice president. “We try to fight such orders legally.”
Falwell has also questioned whether Liberty is being picked on for political reasons, noting that it's not the only university in the country to have the same limited opening.
While the campus remains open for international students and others who have nowhere else to go, Falwell, asserted that classes are being conducted online and the school is “obeying social distancing directives.”
As of Thursday, about one-eighth of the school’s residential students, or 1,000 people, were still living on campus, Falwell said in a statement.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Alex Wong/Staff
Milton Quintanilla is a freelance writer. Visit his blog Blessed Are The Forgiven.