LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Liberty University filed a lawsuit against The New York Times, one of its reporters and a photographer Wednesday, saying the newspaper intentionally misrepresented the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Virginia college campus.
The school said in a statement that the complaint said the newspaper, reporter Elizabeth Williamson and a photographer said the school suffered a COVID-19 outbreak when it reopened after spring break and that nearly a dozen students were sick with the virus.
The Times cited Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr., who was described as the doctor who runs Liberty's health service. The lawsuit said Eppes' job description was misrepresented as well as the information he provided. The school disputes that Eppes told the Times that students started getting sick after returning from spring break or that nearly a dozen Liberty students had symptoms that suggested COVID-19.
Williamson was told to contact another doctor, Dr. Joanna Thomas, who the lawsuit described as directly responsible, but the reporter never did, according to the lawsuit.
“By avoiding the direct source, and only talking to Dr. Eppes, they sought the plausible deniability of claiming he and they misunderstood each other when he inevitably denied (as he did) the story,” the lawsuit said.
Also, the school suggested that the report was an attempt by the Times to bolster its bottom line.
“There was never an on-campus student diagnosed with COVID-19. 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,” according to the lawsuit.
Liberty also said in the lawsuit that when the Times finally contacted the school, it was on the day that the online story was published. It said the newspaper “did not even try to make a meaningful inquiry of Liberty itself.”
“We are holding the New York Times accountable for their malicious and false reporting and their violation of the measures we took to protect our students,” Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. said in a statement issued by the school.
A spokeswoman for the Times didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.