Former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. filed a defamation lawsuit in Virginia on Wednesday, arguing the private evangelical Christian college tarnished his reputation in a series of public statements following his resignation over several sex scandals.
The lawsuit filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court on Wednesday includes claims of defamation and breach of contract against the university his late father helped build. It alleges that Liberty officials accepted what Falwell says are false claims about his involvement in an extramarital affair between his wife and the couple's business partner 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.
Scott Lamb, the senior vice president of communications and public engagement at Liberty University, said in a statement to Fox News Thursday that the Board of Trustees, “are busy at work in session for the next two days for their Fall meetings.” He said the university, “would need to read and review a lawsuit before making comment, and as of this moment we have not been served.”
There were a limited number of redactions in sections of the 29-page complaint pertaining to Falwell's employment agreement in the copy obtained by The Associated Press. K. Todd Swisher, Circuit Court clerk for the city of Lynchburg, said there would be a hearing within a week for a judge to consider whether an unredacted version of the complaint should remain sealed.
Falwell left Liberty in August after Giancarlo Granda, a younger business partner of the Falwell family, said he had a years-long 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 alleged that Granda sought to extort them by threatening to reveal the relationship unless he was paid substantially.
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.
Falwell took over full control of the school after his father died in 2007 and, since then, helped transform the college in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains into a higher education powerhouse, with a surging enrollment and an endowment that grew like a hedge fund.
Just last year, Falwell's money moves helped grow Liberty's endowment by $317.5 million to a whopping $3.1 billion. Total enrollment, including graduate students, rose to nearly 80,000. Even the NCAA Division I football team, the Flames, played in a bowl game. Through it all, Falwell was the ubiquitous face of the school, appearing on national TV, meeting with the president, and always promoting Liberty.
But there have been concerns that the lines between Falwell’s personal profits and that of the school’s have been blurred and, shortly after his 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.”
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Falwell claimed that Liberty “turned on” him after Granda went public with his allegations, forcing his resignation. The lawsuit also says Liberty rejected Falwell's attempts "to reach an amicable resolution,” forcing him to turn to court to “restore his reputation.”
The lawsuit says Liberty's statements have harmed not only Falwell's reputation but also his future employment prospects and business opportunities. Falwell now has a “drastically reduced ability” to attach his name to business and charity organizations, and he has stopped receiving previously frequent invitations to appear on TV to discuss Liberty, evangelicalism and politics, the lawsuit says.
It alleges that “Liberty’s actions are antithetical to the teachings of Christ,” and Falwell’s attorneys charge the university with hurting its own standing and that of the broader evangelical community “by playing right into the hands of sinister operatives with ulterior motives.”
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.
Fox News' Barnini Chakraborty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.