'Butt licking' mistake draws $850,000 suit
VIRGINIA — A Virginia Tech official has filed an $850,000 libel lawsuit against the student newspaper for identifying her as the school’s “director of butt licking.”
Sharon Yeagle filed the lawsuit after the Collegiate Times printed a pulled quotation of hers with the fictitious title under her name as part of a story about a fellowship program at the school.
Yeagle’s correct job description, assistant to the vice president for student affairs, was used throughout the April 30 story.
Editor Katy Sinclair told the Associated Press that the mistake resulted from the paper’s use of “dummy copy” stored in its computer system for each issue.
“This wasn’t even aimed at Sharon Yeagle. This was in their system,” said Wat Hopkins, assistant professor of communications studies at Virginia Tech.
The same job title appeared in the Times on Oct. 7, 1995. In that issue, it was attributed to the associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. An apology was written and both parties saw the matter as a “joke.”
Yeagle was also mailed an apology, but took the matter more seriously, said Lynn Nystrom, the paper’s adviser.
Yeagle’s attorney, S.D. Roberts Moore, said the title implies Yeagle committed “a crime involving moral turpitude” and that the actions of the paper “injured Yeagle’s employment, office, and professional standing without justification.” Moore argued that under Virginia state law, the act of “butt licking” could be considered felony sodomy. The law states “if any person … carnally knows any male or female person by the anus or by or with the mouth … he or she shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony.”
Libel law requires Yeagle to prove a reasonable person read the false title and believed it was true and not a mistake or name-calling. She also has to prove the paper either acted negligently or with reckless disregard for truth or falsity.
“I think it’s name-calling and name-calling is not actionable,” said Dr. Cathy Packer, a media law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She said a jury would have a difficult time believing the paper was accusing Yeagle of a crime.
“No reasonable person could believe this to be true,” Hopkins said. He agreed with Packer.
“I don’t think Miss Yeagle could prove that the Collegiate Times was making a charge that they believed this to be the truth,” he said.
Hopkins said that the way the Virginia court system operates could lead to a possible, though highly unlikely, victory for Yeagle.
“The Virginia Supreme Court has a warped view of what negligence is,” Hopkins said. “Virginia courts are very conservative and don’t interpret the elements of libel law like most courts do.”
Hopkins said because this was the second time the same mistake had been made, the courts could interpret that mistake as the paper being negligent.
“It’s going to be an interesting case,” he said. “I don’t think the Collegiate Times was negligent.”
Nystrom said this is the first time the paper has been sued for libel in its history and that the Times is covered by a $1 million insurance policy.
The Times was established in 1903 and is the oldest and largest paper in Blacksburg, Va.
Fall 1996, reports, The Collegiate Times