What happened when Jerry Falwell Jr. took on journalism over COVID-19

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 21, 2019. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On the morning of March 27, Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer, asked in a text if Calum Best, a student government leader at Liberty University, was available to be photographed for the New York Times. He’d agreed to the photo shoot the previous day at the request of Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson.

“Sure, what should I wear?” answered Best, 21. They decided to meet on the grounds of the Lynchburg campus.  The resulting photograph was published in the Times two days later. It accompanied  Williamson’s story about a decision by Jerry Falwell Jr., an evangelical Christian leader, Liberty’s president and a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump,  to keep the campus partially open after spring break despite the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Falwell didn’t appreciate the Times’ coverage. He disputed a claim in the story made by the director of the student health service that students had exhibited symptoms of the virus, and threatened a defamation suit. The Times stood by its reporting. 

The enemy is real,” Falwell said of the media on the John Fredericks Show on April 14. “They really don’t have any care for the well-being of average Americans. They just want power. They’re authoritarian. They’re like nothing I’ve seen … since Nazi Germany.”

Falwell hasn’t yet filed a lawsuit, but he did go on the attack. The Liberty University Police Department obtained a warrant for Rendleman’s arrest on a trespassing charge shortly after her visit. 

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The university also pressed charges against ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis and freelance photographer Amanda Rhoades, who had entered campus on March 31 on behalf of Agence France-Presse. Falwell said his police department sought a warrant for Williamson as well, but the judge refused to sign it based on a lack of evidence. 

“They’re willing to come from hotspots like New York and go right past no-trespassing signs that we had at every entrance,” Falwell said on the conservative radio show. “These people are not gonna trespass on our campus and bring viruses on our campus and bring whatever it is they’re doing.” 

He promised an “ugly legal fight” over the trespassing charges. 

“They forced us into a corner and I don’t think God wants Christians to just sit back and not protect what they believe in,” he said on the Todd Starnes show last month. 

But Falwell apparently relented after speaking with prosecutor Harrison and receiving written statements from both Rendleman and MacGillis. In mid-May Harrison announced that she was not prosecuting the two journalists on the misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and a year in jail if convicted. 

In written statements, Rendleman issued an apology and MacGillis offered an explanation for his campus visit and accepted a ban from returning to the campus: “Mr. MacGillis believed he had the right to report there based on a prior conversation with [Falwell] and because such reporting constituted business with the university. Mr. MacGillis now understands that Liberty believes he should not have been on campus in light of newly posted signs restricting certain access.”

Harrison told CJR a decision in the Rhoades case has not been made because she has not been in contact with counsel for the photographer. 

The details of the cases form an interesting study for journalists facing the hostility that Trump and his supporters reserve for the media. While Harrison wrote that the charges did meet the legal standard for prosecution, the facts of all three cases indicated they’d be very difficult to take to trial, said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, especially since all three journalists contended they’d essentially been invited on campus. 

It didn’t help prosecutors that the students living on campus who facilitated the journalists’ access were not on board with Falwell’s attempt to criminalize the journalists’ work. “Falwell is using the law to wage a political war against the media,” Best told CJR

Another student, James Bagans, 22, escorted Rhoades, whose arrest warrant is still active, while she shot photos for AFP.  Bagans shot a phone video that shows Liberty police stopping Rhoades, but eventually allowing her to leave campus without charges. The arrest warrant was issued about two weeks later.  “I don’t understand why they retroactively filed it other than for it to be a gag order on the media,” he says. “This is retaliatory for sure. I feel really bad because there shouldn’t be a case at all.” 

Best and Bagans are among a small group of Liberty students willing to speak out against Falwell, who declined an interview request through Liberty staff. Both said that Falwell’s dictates and whims are law in every aspect of campus life, including at the university’s own newspaper. 

 

STORIES OF CENSORSHIP at Liberty University’s newspaper, The Champion, are legion. A former editor of the newspaper, Will E. Young, wrote about the problem last fall in the Washington Post

“We encountered an ‘oversight’ system—read: a censorship regime—that required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review,” Young wrote. “Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article; they added and deleted whatever they wanted. Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally.”

The censorship became more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Trump in early 2016, a move widely viewed as a key moment in securing Trump the evangelical vote. Later that year, the university pulled a column by its sports editor that criticized Trump for passing off boasts of apparent sexual assault as “locker room talk.” (The editor, Joel Schmieg, resigned.) 

More recently, Falwell has echoed Trump’s notion that the response to COVID-19 has been overblown. “Anything that Trump says is backed up by the [Liberty] administration,” says Bagans. “It’s not about looking out for what’s best for us. We’re used as pawns in the political game.”

Falwell said on the April 14 radio show that his eye is on a bigger prize: overturning the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, a unanimous decision that established a protection for the press known as “actual malice.” (It essentially means that a public figure seeking to sue a publication must prove that the coverage set out to deliberately hurt rather than report.)

“I think there’s a chance in this country that this Supreme Court will overturn New York Times v. Sullivan in the not too distant future,” said Falwell. “And I think once that happens the press is gonna be held accountable and they’re gonna be forced to tell the truth, because if they don’t, they’re gonna be sued out of existence.” 

Falwell may have his own axes to grind with the Times and the media in general. Reporters have recently exposed aspects of his life that he might have rather kept private. 

Last June, the New York Times reported on a relationship, which had become the subject of a lawsuit and an alleged cover-up, that Falwell and his wife Becki struck up with a twenty-one-year-old “pool boy” they met in 2012 at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach.  

Then, in September, an 8,000-word Politico story written by Brandon Ambrosino, a former Liberty student, alleged that Falwell engaged in dictatorial behavior and financial “self dealing” at the university to the benefit of his friends and family members. The story included a photograph of Falwell attending a circuit party at the Wall nightclub in Miami Beach, an image Falwell said was faked, though more photos surfaced from the same party the next day. 

Liberty students are strictly forbidden to drink and can receive demerits if caught co-ed dancing. The coverage sparked student protests. Falwell responded by calling for the FBI to investigate those who had leaked information. He said he was the victim of an attempted coup and threatened a defamation suit against Ambrosino. 

 

THE CASES NOT ONLY shine a light on Falwell’s pursuit of the media but also on journalists’ rights when covering a story of import. 

In the video shot by student Bagans, he can be heard telling the campus officers that Rhoades is within her rights to be there and they should let her be.

“I pay tuition,” Bagans tells the officer. “If they’re with me, then it’s not the same thing as someone just coming on their own.” 

“I get what you’re saying,” the unidentified officer replies before he and a supervisor allow her to leave campus. 

Rendleman’s visit was also condoned by Best and now we learn that MacGillis had been invited on the campus in the past by Falwell. 

“If you’re invited by somebody with the authority to come onto a property, that can’t be a trespass,” says Osterreicher, the National Press Photographers Association attorney. “The students live there and have the legal authority to be there. They also have the authority to invite somebody there.”

Though Virginia law states that it’s unlawful to enter a property after receiving notice of trespassing, including a sign, a little-known Oklahoma case, United States v. Carloss, in the Tenth Court of Appeals, established that a “no trespassing” sign doesn’t revoke the “implied license” that someone conducting legitimate business has to knock on a door. 

But courtrooms are unpredictable places. There is a difference, Osterreicher says, between laws that favor journalists and measures that can be brought to bear by determined antagonists. “Knowing your rights is great,” he says. “But usually, ‘I know my rights,’ is the last thing you say before you hear the words, ‘Put your hands behind your back, you’re under arrest.'”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

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Bob Norman has covered crime and corruption in southern Florida for 25 years. He's currently working as a freelance journalist.