RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Jerry Falwell Jr. has sued Liberty University, alleging the evangelical school founded by his late pastor father damaged his reputation after he resigned as president and chancellor in August amid a series of scandals.
The lawsuit filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court on Wednesday (Oct. 28) includes claims of defamation and breach of contract. It alleges that Liberty officials accepted what Falwell says are false claims about whether he was involved in an extramarital affair and “moved quickly” to destroy his reputation.
“When Mr. Falwell and his family became the targets of a malicious smear campaign incited by anti-evangelical forces, Liberty University not only accepted the salacious and baseless accusations against the Falwells at face value, but directly participated in the defamation. This action seeks redress for the damage Liberty has caused to the reputation of Mr. Falwell and his family,” the lawsuit says.
K. Todd Swisher, Circuit Court clerk for the city of Lynchburg, provided the Associated Press with a copy of the complaint, which contains a limited number of redactions. He said there would be a hearing within a week for a judge to consider whether an unredacted version of the complaint should remain sealed.
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb said the school would have a formal statement in response to the lawsuit later Thursday. The school’s board of trustees has been meeting this week. An attorney for Falwell did not respond immediately to a telephone message left Thursday, and Falwell did not respond to a voicemail and text seeking comment.
His departure came after Giancarlo Granda, a younger business partner of the Falwell family, said he had a yearslong sexual relationship with Falwell’s wife, Becki Falwell, and that Jerry Falwell participated in some of the liaisons as a voyeur. Although the Falwells have acknowledged that Granda and Becki Falwell had an affair, Jerry Falwell has denied any participation. The couple allege that Granda sought to extort them by threatening to reveal the relationship unless he was paid substantial amounts of money.
Before his resignation, Falwell had already been on an indefinite leave of absence after an uproar over a photo he posted on social media of him and his wife’s pregnant assistant, both with their pants unzipped. Falwell said it was taken in good fun at a costume party during a vacation, but critics saw it as evidence of hypocrisy by the head of an institution that holds students to a strict moral code of conduct.
Shortly after Falwell’s departure, Liberty announced it was opening an independent investigation into his tenure as president, a wide-ranging inquiry that would include financial, real estate and legal matters. Earlier this month, the school identified Baker Tilly US as the firm handling the investigation and announced the launch of a website to “facilitate the reporting of potential misconduct to the investigative team.”
Falwell’s acrimonious departure from Liberty came four years after his endorsement helped burnish the reputation of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump among conservative evangelical Protestants. That group has since become a critical part of the president’s political base. The public Falwell-Trump alliance that marked 2016 is not visible in this year’s election, as the president looks to other prominent evangelical surrogates.