Student files suit against Falwell's Liberty U over virus policy

The litigation raises the prospect of a possible financial motivation behind Jerry Falwell's reasoning for keeping his university partially open.
Image: US-HEALTH-VIRUS
Students at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, congregate while walking around on March 31, 2020.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / AFP - Getty Images file

While the vast majority of American universities and colleges closed in response to the pandemic, Liberty University is a unique case.

The evangelical school in Virginia, founded by infamous televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., is run by Jerry Falwell Jr., who said a month ago that he considers it "strange" that many Americans are "overreacting" to the crisis, adding that the "hype" surrounding the pandemic is intended to hurt Donald Trump politically.

Soon after, the News & Advance in Lynchburg reported that Liberty would defy the national trend and remain partially open. The policy included students living in on-campus housing, where they would continue to take classes online.

NBC News reported yesterday that the university's policy has led to a lawsuit from a Liberty student who is demanding a refund.

The anonymous plaintiff said that if the university, established by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell Sr., is to remain open at full cost, then it should also make its full array of student services available, according the federal complaint filed in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the university is based. The school has moved all classes online, shut down on-campus recreation centers, converted all dining options to takeout only and ended all student activities -- and it still wants to keep all tuition and other fees paid by spring-semester students, according to the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status to include other "similarly situated" students.

According to the lawsuit, "Liberty University is, in a very real sense, profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic -- keeping its campus and campus services 'open' as a pretext to retain Plaintiff's and the other Class members' room, board and campus fees, despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students' finances and health at risk."

The litigation, in other words, raises the prospect of a possible motivation for Falwell's reasoning: while there's been speculation of late about Falwell having political or ideological reasons for keeping Liberty open, the lawsuit appears to be making the case that there may be a financial element.

For its part, the university said in a statement that "certain students" will be eligible for a $1,000 credit. NBC News' report added, "Annual tuition is $23,800, and housing options run from $4,750 to $8,000."

In late March, the New York Times reported that one student had tested positive of the coronavirus, while several others "were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19."

Last week, the university pushed for criminal trespassing charges against two journalists, including a New York Times photographer, who covered Liberty's decision to remain partially open.