Universities that allow student editors to make content decisions are protected from libel suits, three courts rule
Three recent court decisions have reaffirmed a principle that should make college administrators less inclined to censor the student press: schools that allow student editors to make their own content decisions will be protected from liability if a libel suit is filed.
A South Carolina state court judge ruled in December that Clemson University was not responsible for material published by a student media organization when he dismissed a libel lawsuit filed against the school.
A former Clemson graduate student brought the suit over what he termed a “malicious and untrue” story published in The Tiger student newspaper in October 1994. The story was based on police reports relating to an alleged incident of indecent exposure.
Among the judge’s reasons for dismissal were that the university was not responsible for items published by The Tiger because the paper was not subject to content review or censorship by the university prior to publication.
Special Circuit Court Judge Charles B. Simmons Jr., said in his order in Lentz v. Clemson Univ., No. 95-CP-39-66 (Ct. Common Pleas, Pickens County Dec. 20, 1995), “The basis of this well-settled holding is that by the terms of both the First and the Fourteenth amendments, freedom of speech and the press are protected against interference from State action, and such protection applies with no less force on the campuses of State Universities than in the communities at large.”
The judge also ruled that the article itself was “a fair and accurate report of public documents” because it was written and published based on police incident reports.
Simmons said newspapers have “a valid recognizable interest in publishing reports of criminal investigations and activities and the public has a corresponding interest in receiving the information.”
According to the opinion,the student, David A. Lentz, was arrested in October 1994 and charged with indecent exposure after he allegedly exposed himself to a university custodian in the bathroom of a residence hall. Lentz claimed that later that same month, the custodian, Debora Hendrickson, approached him and offered to drop the charges against him if he gave her money. Lentz reported the incident to campus police. Hendrickson was later arrested and charged with taking money to compound or conceal an offense. The charges against Lentz were dropped.
The Tiger initially ran a story about the incidents in their Oct. 28 issue. Nearly 85 percent of the copies of this issue (approximately 10,000 out of a 12,000 press run) were stolen from distribution spots around campus. No one has ever been charged for the theft of the newspapers.
The Tiger staff decided to reprint the issue for distribution on the following day. Lentz contacted the newspaper and they agreed to rewrite the story about his arrest, with the inclusion of Lentz’s version of the incidents. The second version of the story was published in the reprinted edition of The Tiger on Oct. 29, 1994.
According to Julie Walters-Steele, Clemson University Director of Student Media Organizations, the newspaper tried to work with Lentz after he initially contacted them to include him in the coverage of the incidents surrounding his arrest. In addition to rewriting the story about Lentz’s arrest, the newspaper staff contacted Lentz several weeks later when they received a letter to the editor that was sympathetic to Lentz’s situation. The Tiger staff complied with Lentz’s request to not publish the letter.
Approximately six months after the article about the incidents ran in The Tiger, the university received notice that it was being sued by Lentz.
Walters-Steele said that the university supported the newspaper in the lawsuit filed by Lentz and that she was satisfied with the outcome of the case.
A New York appellate court issued a ruling similar to that in the Clemson case in October 1995. The court ruled in the case McEvaddy v. City University of New York, 633 N.Y.S.2d 4 (N.Y. App. Div. 1995), that the student newspaper of the City University of New York was not an “agent” of the university. Therefore, the court ruled, that the university could not be held liable for libelous articles that the newspaper published.
James McEvaddy, director of buildings and grounds at CUNY’s Hunter College, filed a claim against the university in response to an April 1989 editorial in the Hunter Envoy that he said was libelousaccording to the court documents. The editorial described allegations made by other Hunter College employees that McEvaddy had promoted a worker to a $50,000-a-year job with no responsibilities, that he had authorized his employees to do electrical work at the local police station in return for special parking privileges, that he had sent workers to clean up acid spills without adequate protective gear and that he had committed other inappropriate acts.
McEvaddy claimed that the university should be held liable for the Envoy’s publishing a “false, defamatory” editorial. He argued that the presence of a faculty adviser and the fact that the publication received school funds should make the university responsible for its actions.
In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of the case, the appellate court disagreed with McEvaddy’s arguments.
“The presence of a faculty adviser to the paper, whose advice was non-binding, and the financing of the paper through student activity fees dispensed by [the university], do not demonstrate such editorial control or influence over the paper” as to justify liability, the court said.
Other courts have protected public schools from liability for material published in student publications as long as they are not censoring the content. But a New Jersey court decision marks the first time a court has issued a similar ruling for a private university.
The case Gallo v. Princeton University, 656 A.2d 1267 (N.J. Super. A.D. 1995), arose when Dominick J. Gallo, a facilities department employee at Princeton, who resigned in 1989 in the wake of a university investigation into improper use of department staff and property, sued the university, several administration officials, and a slew of publications for defamation, invasion of privacy and constructive discharge.
The suit was in response to statements made by university officials that an investigation had revealed use of university equipment and personnel for personal gain. Although it did not name them, the university’s statement did say that three members of the facilities staff had submitted their resignations. Gallo was one of those employees.
These revelations prompted the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, and other campus publications to name Gallo and the other employees who had resigned. Shortly thereafter, Gallo filed the suit.
The trial court dismissed the claims against all of the parties, and Gallo appealed the decision as it related to the university. In April of 1995, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Gallo argued that the university should be held legally responsible for the implication in the Daily Princetonian article that he had engaged in the use of equipment and personnel for personal gain. But the court disagreed.
“[T]he statements were made by the authors of the Daily Princetonian [article],” said the court’s decision. “Therefore, the allegedly defamatory statements that appeared in the [Princetonian] are not attributable to Princeton and its administrators.
reports, Spring 1996