Virginia 'butt-licking' suit dismissed
VIRGINIA — A judge has dismissed a libel lawsuit brought by a Virginia Tech administrator against the student newspaper, holding that a story identifying the administrator as the “Director of Butt Licking” was not defamatory.
Sharon Yeagle filed the lawsuit after the Collegiate Times printed her name and the fictitious title under a pull-quote in a story about a fellowship program in which Virginia Tech students were selected to participate.
In the text of the story, Yeagle was correctly identified as assistant to the vice president for student affairs.
Editor in Chief Katy Sinclair said the use of the title was a mistake that occurred because the paper used “dummy copy” stored on computer templates without changing the copy.
James Creekmore, attorney for the Collegiate Times, said he was pleased with the court’s decision and that he did not think it was a close case because “any reasonable person should have been able to understand from the context that it was a mistake.”
Further, Creekmore said, “It was patently obvious that it was done without malice and without any intent to harm the plaintiff. It was not a statement of affairs about the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s employment or her social activities.”
Yeagle’s attorney, S.D. Roberts Moore, disputed this, saying he does not believe the publication was a mistake. “We believe it was published with malice,” Moore said. “The statements were libelous and the newspaper intended them to be libelous.”
Moore said he was disappointed with the decision and is “giving very serious consideration” to the possibility of appeal.
Yeagle argued that the phrase “Director of Butt Licking” was defamatory because it implied “the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude.” In her complaint, Yeagle asked for compensatory damages of $500,000 and punitive damages of $350,000.
The court rejected Yeagle’s argument, stating that no reasonable person would interpret the title as “accus[ing] Ms. Yeagle of committing any crime, much less any ‘crime against nature.’” The court held that the phrase has no literal meaning but instead is “slang language implying the cultivation of favors from others.”
The court also noted the significance of the context in which the title was used.
The court accepted the argument of the Collegiate Times that in the context of an otherwise serious article, the “use of the title is too absurd to be taken seriously.”
Sinclair said she was excited about the decision because “it meant that the students involved could now go on” with their lives. She was also “glad that the judge saw [the use of the phrase] as not intentional. It was a mistake and that was all it was,” Sinclair said.
The paper now uses question marks, not words, in its computer templates.
The Collegiate Times had mistakenly used the unflattering title once before.
In October 1995, an article described an associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as the “Director of Butt Licking.” The paper apologized to the aggrieved professor, who took the incident lightly.
reports, Spring 1997