After promising in May that the media outlet would not "get away with it," Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University in Virginia, has made good on his threat to go after the New York Times for defaming the conservative Christian institution.
The school has officially filed a $10.35 million civil suit against the Times, alleging that the paper "intentionally misrepresented" the school's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The story in question, written by reporter Elizabeth Williamson, appeared on March 29 and alleged that multiple students returning from spring break were infected with coronavirus. The story proved to be false as no student or staff member was, or ever became, infected.
The story carried two headlines, both mentioned in the lawsuit, that drew the ire of Liberty officials. "Liberty Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus, Too" was one, and the headline "A University Reopened and Students Got Sick" also included a provocative subheading:
"The decision by the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., to partly reopen his evangelical university enraged residents of Lynchburg, Va. Then students started getting sick."
Williamson is named in the lawsuit, along with the Times and photographer Julia Rendleman who the school alleges trespassed on school grounds during a time that visitors and tourists were being turned away as a precaution against coronavirus spread.
"There was never an on-campus student diagnosed with COVID-19," the lawsuit said. "The only actual ‘viral' element of this narrative that existed was the intense ‘viral' internet attention it generated for the New York Times' website and for those paying to advertise on that website."
Even after many elements of the story proved to be false, the New York Times refused to offer a retraction.
Eileen Murphy, senior vice president of corporate communications for the Times, expressed confidence in the reporting, saying, "We look forward to defending our work in court."