Student sues over photography mix-up
Libel suit pursued despite public apology, removal of papers
MISSOURI — A student has sued the editor in chief of the student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University after the paper mistakenly published a photograph of him, pulled from the university’s media guide, with an article about another student accused of sexual assault.
On Oct. 30, 1996, The Standard ran a picture of senior Lee Young, rather than his football teammate Anthony Woodson, against whom the charges were later dismissed.
According to David Vogel, attorney for editor Amanda Holderby, a university administrator notified The Standard of the mistake at about 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, and the papers were pulled from the racks by between 11:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
The staff reprinted the paper the same day with the correct photo and a notice at the top of the front page explaining that the earlier edition had contained the wrong photograph.
Staff members also posted signs on the newspaper racks stating the mistake.
Vogel argues that Holderby is not liable to Young because she did not actually “publish” the photograph, a required element of a libel action.
“She did not personally publish the material,” Vogel said. “She had nothing to do with the specific acts in question.” Vogel also argues that Holderby is not liable because she is a public employee and therefore protected by official immunity.
“The key to official immunity is that public officials and employees who are acting within the course and scope of their employment in performing discretionary tasks and who are acting without malice are not liable for torts such as libel,” Vogel said.
Holderby is a public employee, Vogel said, because she is paid by the state for serving as editor of the paper.
Vogel argues that Holderby meets the elements of official immunity because she was performing discretionary tasks in the course of her duties as editor and because she did not act with malice. There was “absolutely no intent to hurt Lee Young,” Vogel said.
Vogel also questions the assertion in Young’s complaint that the correction the paper ran was inadequate based on conversations Holderby had with Young after the incident occurred.
“Amanda personally spoke with him [Young] and asked what she could do to rectify the problem. She showed him the correction and offered to do more than that. He didn’t take her up on that,” Vogel said.
Young had also sued the university itself but dropped his claim after agreeing with the university’s argument that it was immune from suit. The legal doctrine of sovereign immunity provides that state entities cannot be sued unless the state legislature enacts statutes expressly waiving immunity.
Young’s attorney, Roy King Jr., did not return phone calls for comment.
The Standard is a weekly newspaper with a circulation between 8,000 and 12,500.
reports, Spring 1997