Liberty University police issue arrest warrants for NYT, ProPublica reporters

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday said that arrest warrants had been issued for reporters from The New York Times and ProPublica after both publications wrote stories criticizing his decision last month to partially reopen his Virginia-based college.

Photos of the arrest warrants for New York Times freelance photographer Julia Rendleman and ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis were published on the website of conservative radio host Todd Starnes. The warrant alleges each committed misdemeanor trespassing on campus while gathering information for their respective stories.

Falwell's decision on March 24 to reopen the private evangelical Christian university campus came nearly two weeks after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) issued a state of emergency. 

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The university said that some students couldn't return home in an effort to protect elderly family members living under the same roof, while roughly 750 students were international students who couldn't return to their home countries. 

Five days after the campus reopened, The New York Times reported that, according to the school's director of student health services, nearly a dozen students had reported symptoms similar to those experienced in positive coronavirus cases.

According to the school's website, no cases of the virus have been confirmed on campus.

Liberty's website also denied the veracity of the Times report, calling it "false and misleading."

"Dr. Thomas Eppes, who was quoted in the Times’ story, denies he ever told the reporter that Liberty had about a dozen students were sick with symptoms that suggest COVID-19," reads an article on Liberty's website. "He gave figures for testing and self-isolation that are consistent with Liberty’s numbers but the New York Times preferred to go forward with sensational click-bait that increases traffic."

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The university said that the reporters committed “trespassing on posted property.”

"The arrest warrants are issued by a magistrate based on information derived from an investigation conducted by Liberty University Police Department, the police agency with primary jurisdiction, based on reports of criminal trespassing on posted property made by Liberty University," the university told The Hill in an email.

The New York Times and ProPublica have each stood by their reporting.

"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," said a Times spokesperson in an email to The Hill. "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.”

"We have not heard from the university or any authority from the commonwealth of Virginia," Dick Tofel, ProPublica president, told The Hill in regard to the arrest warrant. "We also have not heard anything from the university saying there is anything wrong in the story." 

Liberty was founded in 1971 and has an average undergraduate enrollment of 45,000 students across 7,000 acres in Lynchburg. 

Updated 7:00 p.m.