Arrest warrants were issued for two journalists on Monday over their reporting on the spread of the coronavirus in Virginia.
Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for the Times, and Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, were wanted for misdemeanor trespassing on the Liberty University campus in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the evangelical university, announced the issuance of the warrants in an interview Wednesday on Todd Starnes’ radio show. Falwell told the conservative host the journalists had allegedly broken the law while working on articles critical of his decision to partially reopen the campus amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Copies of the warrants published to Starnes’ website show they were requested by Liberty University police and granted by a local district judge.
Falwell and Liberty have been widely criticized for welcoming students back to campus after spring break despite the spread of the novel coronavirus. Almost every other U.S. college has closed campus and sent students home.
The Times reported that 11 Liberty students were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory diseased caused by the coronavirus. At least one student, who lives off campus, had tested positive, according to Dr. Thomas Eppes Jr., who runs Liberty’s student health service.
All the students were directed to self-quarantine. Falwell told the Times any student returning to campus would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Jerry Falwell Jr. defends the arrest warrants
Falwell, a supporter of Donald Trump, has derided the “overreaction” to the coronavirus outbreak as driven by liberals’ desire to politically damage the president. He told Politico he kept his campus open to accommodate the handful of students who cannot safely return home.
Both Falwell and Eppes have accused Liberty’s critics of targeting the university because it is religious and conservative.
Falwell told Starnes he sought charges against Rendleman and MacGillis, to protect his students. He said the journalists had probably come from coronavirus hot spots, like Washington, D.C., or New York, and had endangered those who remained on campus.
According to Falwell, there were witnesses in both cases. He said there were no-trespassing signs posted at “every entrance” that bar everyone from the campus except students, faculty and staff, or those with official university business.
Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica, said he knew nothing about the warrant for MacGillis other than having seen it on Starnes’ website.
David McCraw, in-house counsel for the Times, said in a statement that Rendleman had been invited to campus by one of the students interviewed for the article.
“Julia was engaged in the most routine form of news gathering: taking an outdoors picture of a person who was interviewed for a news story,” he said.
“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.”
The judge did not issue a warrant for the reporter of the Times article, Elizabeth Williamson, for lack of physical evidence, Falwell said. But Falwell threatened a defamation lawsuits against her and another unidentified media outlet unless the Times made a “clear apologetic correction.”
- Julia Rendleman./Alec MacGillis.: Screen grabs