*Columbia Journalism Review* on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Latest Attack on the Press

Liberty Campus

Here is a taste of Bob Norman’s piece at the Columbia Journalism Review:

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 theNew 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 Timesstood by its reporting. 

“The enemy is real,” Falwell said of the media on the John Fredericks Showon 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.

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. 

Read the rest here.