'Butt-licking' title not libelous


Virginia Supreme Court's ruling sides with college student newspaper





VIRGINIA — The state supreme court upheld the dismissal in February of a lawsuit brought by a Virginia Tech administrator who claimed that she had been defamed when the student newspaper identified her as the university’s “Director of Butt-Licking.”

The court ruled 7-2 that Sharon Yeagle, the assistant to the vice president for student affairs, could not bring a defamation suit against the Collegiate Times. The majority found that the phrase, although crude, did not meet the legal standard for defamation.

“The phrase is disgusting, offensive and in extremely bad taste, but it cannot reasonably be understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle’s job title or her conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude,” Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy wrote in the majority opinion.

The fictitious title accidentally appeared when editors of the Collegiate Times forgot to remove it from the “dummy copy” stored on computer templates. A pullout quote — which supported a story that detailed the success of one of Yeagle’s programs — included the crude phrase; the editors promptly sent her a letter apologizing for the mistake.

However, Yeagle sued for $850,000 in damages, claiming that the title “Director of Butt-Licking” implies the “commission of a crime involving moral turpitude” and had damaged her career. In February 1997, a Virginia circuit court dismissed the case when it determined that “the use of the title is too absurd to be taken seriously.” The state’s high court agreed with the dismissal.

Yeagle’s attorney, S.D. Roberts Moore, said that his client has no plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state supreme court1s decision. He expressed her disappointment.


reports, Spring 1998