I received this email, on April 15, 2020, from a lawyer for Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia.
By the way, Liberty is reportedly one of the largest evangelical Christian universities in the world. It is mostly an online school but, as of 2017, the university enrolled more than 15,000 students at its Lynchburg campus.
It has more than 94,000 students in online courses, for a total of about 110,000 students.
The school consists of 17 colleges, including a school of medicine and a school of law. It was founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. and its current president is Jerry Falwell Jr.
According to the New York Times, “Under the Falwell family’s leadership, Liberty University has grown in five decades from a modest Baptist college to an evangelical powerhouse with cash investments and endowments of nearly $2 billion, nearly 46,000 undergraduates and a campus that sprawls across Lynchburg and neighboring counties in Virginia.”
Here is the email I received from Liberty’s lawyer, Michael Bowe.
RE: Liberty University
Dear Mr. Parlato,
This firm represents Liberty University.
On March 30, 2020, the Frank Report published an article titled “Now Arrested – Tampa Evangelist Keeps Church Open Despite Coronavirus Anticipating the Rapture – Advising Toilet Paper Will Appear from the Lord” (the “Article”), which republished, summarized, and extrapolated materially false and misleading statements regarding Liberty University published by the New York Times in a March 29, 2020 article titled “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too” (the “NYT Article”).
Attached is a letter sent to the New York Times on April 8, 2020, notifying the New York Times that the NYT Article is factually inaccurate and libelous, demanding its immediate retraction, and threatening legal action.
The [Frank Report] Article is similarly libelous and has inflicted substantial harm on Liberty University’s reputation and caused it to expend substantial time and resources to address the false and misleading statements therein.
Liberty University hereby demands that the Article be immediately retracted in its entirety and that the Frank Report and those who worked on the Article immediately implement a litigation hold.
BROWN RUDNICK LLP
Michael J. Bowe
[Ed. note: A litigation hold is a temporary suspension of a company’s document retention/destruction policies for the documents that may be relevant to a lawsuit.]
Before we publish the letter Michael Bowe sent to the New York Times, let me republish what was written about Liberty University in the Frank Report article Now Arrested –Tampa Evangelist Keeps Church Open Despite Coronavirus Anticipating the Rapture – Advising Toilet Paper Will Appear From the Lord.
The bulk of this article is about Pastor Rodney Howard Browne, who was arrested in Tampa for conducting Sunday services in early April in his mega-church in violation of a county order limiting public gatherings.
As part of this article, Frank Report wrote:
“So far there have been no reports of anyone catching coronavirus from Pastor Howard-Browne’s church.
“However, several students at Jerry Falwell Jr’s university have been told to quarantine themselves after the evangelical leader reopened the campus of his Virginia’s Liberty University last week despite the growing coronavirus pandemic.
“Falwell said he believed he is ‘protecting’ students by keeping them on campus together.
“Officials in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the university is located, did not approve the campus reopening.
“As Liberty University’s spring break was drawing to a close this month, Falwell spoke with the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service about the rampaging coronavirus.
“’We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,’ Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr. said he told Falwell.
“But he did not urge him to close the school. ‘I just am not going to be so presumptuous as to say, “This is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do,” Dr. Eppes told the NY Times.
‘Falwell reopened the university last week. As of Friday, Dr. Eppes said, nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19. Three were referred to local hospital centers for testing. An additional eight were told to self-isolate.
“As of 8 p.m. on March 29, of three students tested, one was positive. However, the student who tested positive lives off-campus.
“Of the 1,900 students who initially returned last week to campus, more than 800 had left.”
So here is Mr. Bowe’s email to the New York Times’ lawyer, Diana Brayton, which was copied to me:
Dear Ms. Brayton,
This firm represents Liberty University (“LU”).
On March 29, 2020, the New York Times rushed out a poorly investigated and materially false and misleading story that it has continued to refuse to properly correct. Among other things, this story’s central message was that LU had not honored promises to remain closed after spring break, “[t]hen students started getting sick,” which the story described as “nearly a dozen Liberty students sick with symptoms that suggested COVID-19,” “three were referred to local hospital centers for testing,” and “another eight were told to self-isolate.”
This account is factually inaccurate, libelous, and paints LU in a grossly false light. It also remains on the New York Times’ website despite LU having informed the New York Times of the true facts, and the story’s purported source publicly denying the core facts attributed solely to him and clarifying this with your bylined reporter.
As the New York Times is now aware:
(a) to date no campus residents have tested positive for COVID-19 or required testing because of symptoms;
(b) three off-campus students have been tested;
(c) only one of these three (a graduated student) tested positive but that student and his family live in Lynchburg, never left Lynchburg for spring break, was not enrolled in classes on campus, and was not on campus for more than two weeks prior to the time he tested positive;
(d) four on-campus students were instructed to self-isolate because they had returned from New York City area even though they were not symptomatic and three others who had close contact with them and also asymptomatic were instructed to self-isolate, as well.
These facts are irreconcilable with the story’s continued claim that about a “dozen” students became sick with COVID-19 symptoms as well as its connecting those non-existing illnesses to the reopening of the campus. The refusal to remove these false and defamatory claims from its website demonstrates the New York Times’ reckless disregard for the truth and malice.
It is also undeniable that this false message the New York Times intentionally manufactured was exactly the message readers understood from the story. This false reporting was republished innumerable times by other major and minor media outlets and on social media and created the false and defamatory understanding that LU experienced a Covid-19 outbreak and that this was connected to students being permitted to return from spring break.
This libelous story has inflicted substantial harm on Liberty University’s reputation and caused it to expend substantial time and resources addressing. LU hereby demands that this story be retracted in its entirety, and that the New York Times and those who worked on this story immediately implement a litigation hold as potential litigation is imminent.
Very truly yours,
Brown Rudnick LLP
Michael J. Bowe
As far as I can tell, the New York Times has not issued a retraction and their original story is still available online.
The Times seems to have made one addition to the story:
“After initial publication of this article, the university said it had asked four students who returned from the New York area and two of their roommates to self-quarantine, but none of them were referred for testing and none had symptoms. One student who returned from a county with a high number of cases was running a fever and had a cough. He was tested and elected to go home pending the results rather than self-isolate, the university said.”
For our part, Frank Report does not want to publish anything untruthful, and while we did get most of our information relative to Liberty University from the New York Times story, we accept Mr. Bowe’s word on the matter, so we have published his letter in full.
His main points are: No Liberty University Campus residents have tested positive for COVID-19, or required testing because of symptoms.
Three off-campus students were tested, and one tested positive but that student was not on campus when he got the coronavirus.
Seven on-campus students self-isolated because they returned from New York City or they had close contact with the students who returned from NYC. None of them were symptomatic.
Let this serve as clarification.
Meantime, in response to the New York Times report, Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr., wrote on Twitter: “Prime example of why you never believe anything @nytimes says about @LibertyU. Complete liars.”
In its statement about The Times story, Falwell, Jr. wrote, “The University promptly provided the reporter detailed numbers on the student cases and requested corrections. No correction has been forthcoming…”
The Times, however, was not done reporting on Liberty and reported on April 16 “Jerry Falwell Jr.’s angry counteroffensive against critics of his decision to invite Liberty University students back to its Lynchburg, Va., campus after spring break has played out in the media, the courts, even with the campus police.
“But his campaign has been undermined by the spread of a virus he cannot control.
“Since March 29, when the first case was diagnosed in a Liberty student living off-campus, confirmed coronavirus cases in the Central Virginia health district, which surrounds Lynchburg and Liberty, have grown from seven to 78. One person has died. On Tuesday, a Lynchburg city police officer tested positive, forcing another officer into quarantine and setting off a furious effort to trace all of the infected officer’s contacts.
“It is not known whether any of those cases are linked to returning Liberty students, but the university community is exposed as well. Liberty said on Wednesday night that two employees had tested positive for the coronavirus, two more had results pending, and seven were quarantined at home. Beyond the one acknowledged infection in a student, who the university said was not enrolled in classes, test results are due Friday on another student. Two other students have been relocated and quarantined in an annex with ‘no symptoms, no test.’….
“The furor in Lynchburg centers on Mr. Falwell’s decision to open the campus to all students and staff at a time when most American universities were closing for fear of spreading the disease. For weeks before that decision, Mr. Falwell had derided other universities’ coronavirus responses as overreactions driven by a desire to harm President Trump.
“’We think it’s irresponsible for so many universities to just say “closed, you can’t come back,” push the problem off on other communities and sit there in their ivory towers,’ he told a conservative radio host.
“…. Mr. Falwell, a close ally of Mr. Trump, has protested that his policies were no different than many other university administrators, and that he has been singled out for unfair criticism by liberal journalists bent on his destruction.
“…. The media, he said in a radio interview with John Fredericks, who identified himself as a Trump campaign operative, ‘just want power, they’re authoritarian, they’re like nothing I’ve seen since, if you go back in history, to Nazi Germany. That’s what they remind me of.’
“And he has spared no effort to defend his actions since articles on Liberty’s reopening ran in ProPublica and The New York Times. He pursued arrest warrants for misdemeanor trespassing against two journalists, Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for The Times. He enlisted a New York law firm to threaten legal action against The Times and, he has said, other outlets as well.
“He called a Times reporter shortly before midnight, leaving a voice mail message that said, ‘you’re in some serious trouble.’ He accused the journalists of putting his students at risk because they traveled from New York City. (They did not.)
“City officials say that Mr. Falwell assured them during spring break that only about 300 students, who either live abroad or had nowhere else to go would return after spring break. Then he changed his mind, reopening the campus to a potential population of thousands….”
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It is rather a question of Liberty versus safety.
Franklin warned “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Does that hold true in a pandemic?