Lawyers for Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. have threatened in a cease-and-desist letter to sue the author of an explosive report alleging misconduct by Falwell, calling the journalist’s claims “false and defamatory.”
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The News & Advance after it was delivered Tuesday, is the clearest sign yet Falwell intends to wage a legal battle over what he has previously called an attempted coup to oust him as university president.
Falwell has retained attorneys from the New York-based law firm Kasowitz, Benson & Torres, whose founding partner, Marc Kasowitz, served as a personal attorney for President Donald Trump until 2017. In a statement, Falwell said the firm is conducting a broad investigation into former Liberty officials and board members who may have spoken to or provided internal records to journalists.
“We have been patient with the smear campaign being waged against the school, but it is clear now that there is a concerted effort to damage the school’s reputation and mission,” Falwell said. “We have a fiduciary duty to defend the school from this attack.”
Last month, Politico Magazine published a story alleging Falwell leveraged the university’s business interest to enrich himself, family members and friends. The story — which carried the headline, “Someone’s gotta tell the freakin’ truth: Jerry Falwell’s aides break their silence” — included internal university emails obtained by Politico and cited unnamed sources.
The magazine article, written by LU graduate Brandon Ambrosino, said it was based on interviews with more than two dozen “current and former high-ranking LU officials and close associates of Falwell’s.”
The article, which received widespread national attention, was published amid a cascade of media reports detailing free speech concerns at Liberty and business decisions Falwell has made during his tenure as university president.
Falwell has disputed the allegations in the magazine and has accused former university board members and political rivals of attempting to undermine his leadership. Falwell has stopped short of naming those he believes are behind the leaks but has said they are motivated by his support of Trump. The magazine story, in part, helped spark a university-approved student protest on Liberty’s campus and calls for greater accountability for Falwell.
Tuesday’s letter, which was addressed solely to Ambrosino, was signed by Michael J. Bowe, an attorney, who among other high-profile clients, represented Trump during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The letter accuses Ambrosino of defaming Falwell and Liberty in the pages of Politico Magazine and during a public forum Oct. 7 at Villanova University, where Ambrosino discussed his reporting. Among the claims disputed in the letter are accusations Falwell steered business to companies run by his son Jerry “Trey” Falwell III and others close to Falwell.
“These obviously defamatory claims are part of a pattern of disparagement you have directed at LU and Mr. Falwell,” Bowe wrote in the letter, which is dated Oct. 22. The letter concludes with a demand Ambrosino “immediately retract these false and defamatory statements,” adding that defamation action is likely.
Ambrosino confirmed in a Facebook post Wednesday he received the cease-and-desist letter, and told The News & Advance on Wednesday night, “I stand by my reporting.” Politico did not respond to requests for comment.
If Falwell does pursue a defamation suit he could face a high hurdle in court, according to legal experts.
“In order to bring a successful defamation action, a public figure like Jerry Falwell Jr. must prove by clear and convincing evidence that factual statements asserted by the defendant were false and that the defendant knew they [were] false or knew of a substantial risk that they were false,” Leslie Kendrick, the vice dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Law, said in an email.
Falwell, who previously said Liberty’s board of trustees has approved legal action in response to recent media reports, said Tuesday he will only file a lawsuit if “we are confident we can succeed.”
A suit aimed at Ambrosino and Politico would not be the first time the Falwell family has sued a media outlet for defamation. In 1983, Jerry Falwell Sr. filed a federal lawsuit against Hustler Magazine and its publisher Larry Flynt after the magazine published a satirical advertisement parodying the elder Falwell. The suit eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court unanimously decided in favor of Flynt, ruling parodying public figures is protected speech.
Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.