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Liberty University obtains trespassing warrants against two journalists

April 6, 2020

Arrest warrants were issued on April 6, 2020, for two journalists after they visited Liberty University to cover the school's decision to invite students back to campus following spring break during the coronavirus pandemic.

Virginia Magistrate Kang Lee signed the misdemeanor arrest warrants, which were sought by the Liberty University Police Department against ProPublica's Alec MacGillis, who wrote a March 26 report about students who returned to the university's Lynchburg, Virginia, campus, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer on assignment for The New York Times whose photos accompanied a March 29 story in the newspaper. A warrant was not issued for the author of the Times piece, Elizabeth Williamson, as university officials had not located eyewitnesses placing her on campus, University President Jerry Falwell Jr. told the Associated Press.

Falwell has faced criticism of downplaying the risk posed by the coronavirus and being slow to halt in-person classes at the school. Around 1,000 students remain on campus. In MacGillis' ProPublica piece, "What’s It Like on One of the Only University Campuses Still Open in the U.S.?" he describes many examples of students on campus not adhering to social distancing guidelines and students and faculty worried about their personal safety.

The decision whether to prosecute will be up to Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison, according to the AP. "Once I receive copies of the served warrants, obtain reports from the Liberty University Police Department, conduct any necessary follow up investigation, and thoroughly research the applicable statutes and case law, I will make a final decision about how to proceed," Harrison said in a news release. Under Virginia law criminal trespassing is a class one misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

"We have heard nothing about this warrant from either Liberty or any authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia," ProPublica President Richard Tofel wrote in an email to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. "We have also still never heard any suggestion from Liberty that anything in our story was factually inaccurate. We continue to believe this was a story of significant public interest about the greatest public health crisis of our time."

Eileen Murphy, a Times spokesperson, decried the decision to seek a warrant for someone taking photos for a news story in a statement to the Lynchburg News & Advance. "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 reopen campus in the midst of the pandemic," Murphy said.

Falwell announced the warrants in an April 8 appearance on the Todd Starnes radio show and accused the reporters of putting students at risk by coming onto campus from known hot spots.

"To us it's so hypocritical for them to come to a campus that is doing everything right — social distancing, take-out food only, protecting our students who have no place else to go and no classes — and to come on our campus from New York or Washington or wherever the hotspot is that they come from and put our students at risk," he said.

Falwell shared a letter with the Washington Examiner that Liberty University lawyers have sent to the general counsel of the Times seeking a retraction.

Liberty University has been roundly criticized by press freedom advocates for obtaining the warrants.

Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement that journalists should not face retaliation or threats of criminal penalties for routine newsgathering.

“These arrest warrants appear to be intended to harass journalists who were simply, and rightly, doing their jobs — reporting on the impact of Liberty University’s decision to partially reopen during a pandemic — and to intimidate other reporters from doing the same type of reporting," Townsend said.

The Virginia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also issued a statement, writing, “The journalists were reporting about a health crisis of public interest and importance, and doing so in a professional and responsible manner. By pursuing criminal charges, Liberty University has cast a chilling effect on newsgathering activities vital to a free and democratic society.”

The Washington Post editorial board weighed in on April 12, comparing the move against the journalists as a tactic favored by authoritarian strongmen abroad. "But it is more than a little jarring to see this tactic of criminalizing journalism being employed in the United States — and by a university whose name celebrates American freedom," the editorial said.

The AP also reported that a Liberty University campus security officer asked one of its photographers to leave campus and delete the photos he had taken there on March 24. After speaking to his supervisor, the photographer complied, a decision the AP now says was incorrect. “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.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

May 15, 2020 Update

Criminal charges brought by Liberty University against two journalists for reporting from its Virginia campus were dropped on May 15, 2020.

The late-March visits by photographer Julia Rendleman, freelancing for The New York Times, and reporter Alec MacGillis of ProPublica had focused on the university’s decision to remain partially open during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In a press release from her office, Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison said that she would not pursue the trespassing charges after discussions with University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and receiving written statements from Rendleman and MacGillis.

Rendleman issued an apology and MacGillis accepted a ban from returning to the campus, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

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