‘Free Speech’ Supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. Thinks It’s Criminal To Report On His Dumb And Dangerous Response To The Pandemic – Techdirt

Posted: April 11, 2020 at 7:21 pm

from the that-ain't-free-speech,-champ dept

Jerry Falwell Jr., the nepotistic hire to be President of the religious extremist Liberty University, has long pretended to be an avid free speech supporter, especially on the campus for his University, where he has declared:

There have been sensational stories written about Liberty and censorship, rumors that we do not allow opposing views or First Amendment rights. But that is far from true. We uphold freedom and put its ideals into practice.

Apparently, that commitment to freedom and First Amendment rights gets completely thrown into the garbage the second some reporters write stories about Falwell's ridiculously dangerous decisions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few weeks back, when most of the rest of the country was, smartly, moving into lockdown mode, Falwell, reopened school and told Liberty University students to come back to campus after spring break -- a move that local officials described as "reckless."

Soon after that, both the NY Times and ProPublica ran stories talking to students on campus who were scared and nervous about everything. If you read both of the stories, they're both more than fair to Falwell, and provide plenty of clarity in why he made the decision and the various steps that Liberty University had taken to try to keep campus open while keeping social distancing rules (though, they both show that not everyone was following them). To be clear, I wouldn't say that either of the articles paint Falwell in a particularly bad light, beyond reminding everyone how frequently and vehemently Falwell played down the threat of COVID-19 in the earlier weeks.

Falwell seemed particularly angry at the NY Times piece though the story seems to keep changing as to why. There were claims that the Times quoted a doctor who claimed to run health services at the University, but that the University then released a press release saying he had no role at the University -- but in looking at that press release as I type this, I no longer see the claim that he had no role, only that he was misquoted. Similarly, the NY Times piece appears to be quoting Eppes accurately, and it's the Liberty press release that (at least as of right now) misrepresents what the Times piece claimed.

Either way, apparently, Falwell really doesn't care much at all about the First Amendment that he claims to support on campus, because earlier this week, he somehow convinced a magistrate judge to issue arrest warrants for two of the reporters: Alec MacGillis, who wrote the ProPublica story, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer, who took photos included in the NY Times report. Some reports claimed that Falwell also sought, but was unable to get, an arrest warrant for the NY Times reporter who wrote the NY Times piece. When this first came out -- via former Fox News host Todd Starnes (who left Fox News after having on a guest who claimed that Democrats worship a pagan god who "allowed for child sacrifice") -- it was described as Falwell issuing warrants, and that's just not how warrants work at all.

Later clarifications showed that Falwell complained to local officials that the reporters were trespassing, and that's how a local magistrate agreed to issue misdemeanor arrest warrants. And, those warrants do exist, incredibly:

Falwell is, laughably, claiming that this is about protecting his students (the same ones he's now put at risk), rather than retaliation:

Falwell cast his decision to seek a case against the journalists as a move to protect his students, asserting that the journalists had probably come from coronavirus hot spots such as Washington, D.C., or New York, and that by being on campus they had put remaining Liberty students at risk. He also complained that Liberty was being singled out because of its status as a religious school.

This is obviously nonsense. It is clear that that this was retaliating against negative press over his own decisions. I imagine both the NY Times and Propublica will have strong arguments for why these warrants are ridiculous. The NY Times has already made it clear that this was not trespassing, and that the reporter had been invited to campus by a student.

David McCraw, in-house counsel for the Times, said in a statement, 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. McCraw said Rendleman had been invited to campus by one of the students interviewed for the article.

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 universitys decision to convene classes in the midst of the pandemic, he added.

Meanwhile, Falwell is also threatening a defamation civil suit against the reporters if corrections aren't issued -- which seems to only highlight how all of this is retaliatory and about suppressing speech, rather than protecting students.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, alec macgillis, arrest warrants, covid-19, free speech, jerry falwell jr., julia rendleman, reporting, retaliation, trespassingCompanies: liberty university, ny times, propublica

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'Free Speech' Supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. Thinks It's Criminal To Report On His Dumb And Dangerous Response To The Pandemic - Techdirt

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