A lawsuit filed in federal court claims Liberty University failed to protect its students by inviting them back to campus during a COVID-19 stay-at-home order in Virginia.
The class-action suit filed by "Student A" says Liberty erred by remaining open and inviting students back to campus, potentially exposing them to the coronavirus, which much of the world is in isolation to avoid.
"Students who lived in on-campus housing were not expressly forced to move out of their housing — indeed, the University purports to remain open while classes have moved online and the University's President has tried to downplay the significance of the pandemic," the suit states.
The lawsuit questions Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s comparison of COVID-19 to seasonal flu and his comments made during a March 13 interview on Fox News that people were "overreacting" to the coronavirus.
The lawsuit also takes issue with Falwell's speculation during the same interview that the virus was a Christmas present from China and North Korea.
"So in 7 weeks, you'll send the thousands of students, who now have a HIGHER risk of carrying it, back to their grandparents to get it," tweeted Jeff Brittain on March 15. "I'm as right wing as they get, bud. But as a parent of three of your students, I think this is crazy, irresponsible and seems like a money grab."
At the time the suit was filed, Brittain's tweet had received 1,300 likes and 119 comments, and was retweeted 154 times.
"Nope," Falwell responded to Brittain, "then they'll go off to summer jobs or internships dummy."
Students should not have to pay fees for services and activities the university stopped when it pivoted to online classes that students would take from their dorm rooms, the lawsuit states.
"For all practical purposes, students who were living on Liberty's campus have been forced to make the difficult decision of whether to stay on or return to a campus that has effectively been shut down, or to move home and sacrifice the amounts they have paid for room and board and other campus fees," the suit states.
"Given the fact that Liberty had moved all of its classes online and suspended campus services and activities, combined with the very real health risks incumbent with remaining in the residential campus environment during the pandemic, not to mention the stay-at-home orders all around the country, including in Virginia, most students chose to leave campus."
Liberty University responded that it "has tirelessly attempted to balance the needs of students, employees, and the community as it has navigated through the unprecedented health challenges presented by COVID-19."
"While it's not surprising that plaintiff class-action attorneys would seek to profit from a public health crisis, we don't believe this law firm or its single client speaks for the vast majority of our students," the statement says.
"Similar class-action suits are pending against other schools, and such claims will no doubt be made against other higher education institutions that changed how they operate and deliver services to students in the face of COVID-19."
Liberty is not the only university struggling with issues around lockdowns, fee refunds and online learning. Students at Drexel University and the University of Miami filed suit for tuition refunds, according to Law 360. Students at Purdue University filed a similar suit, according to the Lafayette Journal and Courier.
At other universities across the U.S., students and parents are negotiating with institutions to refund all or part of student fees for services that cannot be rendered while campuses are shuttered to control the spread of COVID-19. Some have chosen to refund fees in part for domestic and international programs.
At American University in Washington, D.C., students are receiving refunds for food and housing.
Liberty said it will "provide $1,000 credits to certain students who have opted to move from the residence halls and will continue to allow its students to obtain academic credit in their educational programs online without interruption."
"Liberty's less populated and more frequently sanitized campus living environment will be maintained for those students who chose it as their safest option. … A more complete response to the 84 paragraphs of allegations will be filed with the court but not shared in advance with the media," the university said.