Lawsuit over story on sexual assault dismissed

NEW YORK — In a much anticipated decision, a state court in October dismissed a defamation lawsuit involving a law student, a student newspaper and the paper’s coverage of a sexual assault incident that occurred on campus in 1995.

The student newspaper, the Hofstra University Chronicle, had said in a motion to dismiss that it accurately and truthfully wrote articles about the incident and therefore did not defame the plaintiff, Hofstra University law student Michael Liebgold. Liebgold has filed a motion to appeal the decision.

In granting the paper’s June motion to dismiss, New York State Supreme Court Judge Robert Roberto cited another court decision in explaining that because falsity is a necessary element in any defamation claim, it follows that only statements alleging facts can properly be the subject of a defamation suit.

Roberto agreed with the Chronicle’s argument that the newspaper’s coverage was in fact true and accurate. He said that “since the Plaintiff has conceded to the truth of the facts published in the articles by the Defendant, the Chronicle, he cannot succeed” with a defamatory claim.

The initial suit against both the university and the Chronicle was filed last April. The suit alleged that articles and an editorial published by the newspaper characterized the first year law student as a rapist.

The newspaper said it accurately reported Liebgold’s April 1995 arrest for sexually assaulting a female student in his dormitory room. The editorial ran approximately two weeks after the incident and criticized Hofstra’s administration for its “policy of maligned neglect” toward publicizing alleged crimes on campus. The editorial also chastised Hofstra for not disclosing the details of the case, asking rhetorically, “Was it in fact a rape? Or was it some other type of sex offense?” The charges against Liebgold were eventually dismissed.

Liebgold’s complaint said that a reporter for the Chronicle used the term ‘rape’ as an “unsubstantiated claim.” However, The complaint admitted that the Chronicle accurately reported and commented on Liebgold’s arrest for third degree sexual assault.

“We’re very happy with the decision” said the Chronicle’s attorney, Craig Bloom. Bloom said he was glad the court found the articles to be true and that he was confident the paper had a strong case.

“I was confident the law was on our side…confident we would prevail ultimately, hopeful we would prevail initially” said Bloom.

“The dismissal came as very much of a surprise to us” said Jeffrey Duban, who is representing Liebgold. Duban said he was surprised and disappointed that the court dismissed the case with such brevity, referring to the 16 line decision. He said the overall impression of the Chronicle’s articles “gave rise to the impression that Michael Liebgold had been accused of and committed rape.” Liebgold has denied committing the assault.

reports, Winter 1996-97