A group of Liberty University students have filed a federal class action suit against the private evangelical school in Virginia, saying they got screwed financially and their health was endangered by its decision to remain open in the middle of the pandemic.
In late March, as Virginia and much of the U.S. was shutting down to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. defied public health warnings — and announced that the campus, located in Lynchburg, would remain partially open after spring break, even though classes had been moved offline.
The lawsuit accuses Liberty University of downplaying the crisis, putting students’ health at risk, and refusing to refund fees for students who returned to campus only to find that services they’d paid for (dining except for takeout, recreation center access, sports, and more) were no longer available to them.
"Liberty’s decision to tell its students that they could remain on campus to continue to use their housing, meal plans, parking, and the benefits of the services and activities for which their fees paid, was not only illusory and empty—because there were no more on-campus classes—but it was also extremely dangerous and irresponsible," lead plaintiff Student A said in the complaint filed Monday.
Falwell, a televangelist and stalwart ally of President Donald Trump, repeatedly accused the media of overhyping the danger of coronavirus, which has so far killed over 25,000 people in the U.S. and triggered declarations of emergency in all 50 states.
After spring break, and on the same day Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all K-12 schools in the state would remain closed for the remainder of the school year, more than 1,000 students (of the school’s 100,000) returned to Liberty University’s campus. At the time, there were nearly 300 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Virginia.
Falwell framed his decision to remain open as a gesture intended to help students who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
But the lawsuit accuses Falwell and Liberty University of “profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic” by keeping campus open and retaining students’ room, board and campus fees “despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the white putting students’ finances and health at risk.
The lead plaintiff in the case chose to withhold their identity due to a “legitimate fear of retaliation and harassment” from Liberty and its supporters. According to the lawsuit, they’re concerned about getting harassed or even expelled, pointing to Falwell’s “willingness to use social media, for which he has a large following, to criticize and invite scorn upon anyone who criticizes him.”
Days after the campus reopened in March, the New York Times reported that some students were exhibiting symptoms associated with coronavirus. A day later, they updated their story to reflect that at least one student had actually tested positive for COVID-19. Falwell denied the claims in the article.
Then, last week, a magistrate in Virginia signed arrest warrants issued by Liberty University campus police, pressing criminal trespassing charges against a photographer working for the Times and a reporter for ProPublica who published a story about what life was like on one of the only college campuses that’s still open.
Plaintiffs in the federal class action suit are asking Liberty to refund them thousands of dollars that they paid to return to campus.
Cover: Liberty University's football stadium is empty as students were welcomed back to the university's campus, Tuesday, March 24 , 2020, in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)