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Opinion Liberty University’s shameful crackdown on journalists

Michelle Gougler helps her daughter Morgan  move out of her dorm at Liberty University on March 31.
Michelle Gougler helps her daughter Morgan move out of her dorm at Liberty University on March 31. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AFP via Getty Images)

AUTHORITARIANS LONG ago discovered one way to help maintain control and power is to go after journalists who uncover uncomfortable truths and keep the public informed. It is why strongmen in countries such as China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have arrested and jailed a record number of reporters. But it is more than a little jarring to see this tactic of criminalizing journalism being employed in the United States — and by a university whose name celebrates American freedom.

Liberty University sought and obtained arrest warrants on charges of criminal trespassing against two journalists — a freelance photographer for the New York Times and a reporter for ProPublica — involved in stories that chronicled concerns about the decision to keep the Lynchburg, Va., college partially open amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Campus police investigated the journalists following publication of the critical articles and swore out warrants for Class 1 misdemeanors (punishable by up to a year in jail) that were signed by Virginia Magistrate Kang Lee. It will be up to Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany A.S. Harrison to decide to prosecute, and she said she hasn’t seen any details on the case.

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Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the evangelical Christian school and a prominent supporter of President Trump, framed the decision to seek the charges as a way to protect his students, who were put at risk by outsiders who had probably come from covid-19 hot spots such as New York or the District. Never mind that Mr. Falwell had been a leading cheerleader of the camp minimizing the threat of the coronavirus and portraying the reaction to it as overblown and a Democratic attempt to undercut Mr. Trump. Never mind that Mr. Falwell welcomed back to campus students who had been all over the country during spring break. Never mind, as reported in both articles in the Times and ProPublica, that on the campus there was lax enforcement of social distancing guidelines designed to stop the spread of the contagious virus.

The charges against the journalists, as Katie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said, seem “intended to harass journalists who were simply, and rightly, doing their jobs . . . and to intimidate other reporters from doing the same type of reporting.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine that charges would have been brought had the journalists presented a glowing portrait of the school more to Mr. Falwell’s liking. His efforts — sadly successful — to censor the news and squelch dissent on campus were detailed last year by a former editor of the student newspaper who described a “culture of fear.”

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Ms. Harrison made clear in her statement that her office was not consulted about the charges prior to the warrants being issued, and she stressed that rules of professional conduct bar her from making any public comments while the case is under review. We urge her not to be party to Mr. Falwell’s dirty work.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Irresponsible decisions like Jerry Falwell Jr.’s put untold numbers of people at risk

Michele L. Norris: The coronavirus is amplifying the bias already embedded in our social fabric

Michael S. Saag: What an infectious disease specialist learned about the virus — from getting it

Jennifer Rubin: Biden must say it: Trump will get more people killed

Paulina Neuding and Tino Sanandaji: Is Sweden’s lax approach to the coronavirus backfiring?

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