LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Bethany Harrison has announced that she will not prosecute two journalists that Liberty University filed complaints against for trespassing.
The Liberty University Police Department filed two arrest warrants against journalists after they published pieces about the university's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the arrest warrants, Liberty University filed the complaints against the two journalists on April 6 for misdemeanor trespassing on Liberty University's campus.
The first warrant is against a freelance photographer at the New York Times, Julia Rendleman, and the other is against a reporter at ProPublica, Alec MacGillis.
Falwell told ABC13 last month that this is the first time the university had taken out a warrant against a journalist.
Harrison said Liberty placed 20 'no trespassing' signs at campus locations on March 23. Then, the next day, they placed the same signs at off campus locations in the City of Lynchburg. The signs read "Liberty University Campus, Open ONLY to Students, Employees, & Those Conducting University Business, Until Further Notice, NO TRESPASSING."
She said that MacGillis took photographs and interviewed students on March 25 on Liberty's campus. On March 26, Harrison said his observations and photographs were published in ProPublica, including a photograph credited to him showing a seat found inside a campus building with a sign that read "Stop, Closed for Social Distancing."
Harrison said Rendleman met a LU student on campus on March 27.
The student guided Rendleman around campus and posed for a picture in front of a university building. Harrison said the student said he was unaware of the no trespassing signs.
Rendleman published photos in a New York Times article on March 29. Photos included in the article show areas of LU's campus, including a seating area inside a university building that was taped off to prevent students congregating.
"Given these facts and the law, Bethany Harrison, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Lynchburg, has concluded that Rendleman and MacGillis’ actions meet the statutory requirements of proof to support a charge of criminal trespass," Harrison announced in a press release Friday, May 15.
She said after consultation with Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, she is not going to pursue criminal prosecution and penalties against the two journalists even though there was sufficient evidence to support a charge of criminal trespass
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Rendleman and MacGillis issued statements to Mrs. Harrison through their legal counsel.
Julia Rendleman is represented by Lynchburg attorney Chuck Felmlee.
Ms. Rendleman had been to Liberty University’s campus before to photograph Jerry Falwell, Jr. and was not aware that the University had changed any policies regarding campus access. It was later brought to Ms. Rendleman’s attention that Liberty University had posted signs restricting access to campus staff, students, and those conducting business with the university. Ms. Rendleman apologizes for the misunderstanding and for any concern caused by her presence on campus. Had she been aware of the new policies before arriving on campus that day, she would have requested to meet with the student at an offcampus location.
Alec MacGillis is represented by Edward Ungvarsky of Alexandria, Virginia.
On March 25, 2020, journalist Alec MacGillis went to Liberty University’s campus to report on a newsworthy story related to the health of the public and of university students, which involved assessing the situation on campus and seeking comment from university officials. Mr. MacGillis believed he had the right to report there based on a prior conversation with the university president inviting him to campus and because such reporting constituted business with the university. Mr. MacGillis now understands that Liberty believes he should not have been on campus in light of newly posted signs restricting certain access, and that it is the university’s position that for the duration of the public health emergency and while these signs remain posted, all news media are restricted from entry on campus without express invitation. Mr. MacGillis further understands that the university police have said that Mr. MacGillis is restricted from university property, events, and activities. Mr. MacGillis has enjoyed his time in Lynchburg over the years, and hopes to return to the city soon.
Commonwealth's Attorney Harrison said she is moving to dismiss the charge against Rendleman. MacGillis had not yet been served with a warrant; therefore, the Commonwealth’s Attorney said she will recall his warrant.