Deciding what is fit to post
Two courts ruled on libel claims brought for critical remarks put online
People are turning to the Internet in increasing numbers to express their views on a range of issues and, with a click of the mouse, sending information to an audience the size of the world. But as recent legal battles can attest, student journalists who post stories online must be mindful that many of the same rules apply to Internet speech to what they publish in a print newspaper.
Courts are hearing cases that deal with Internet speech and making rulings as to what kind of information can be lawfully published online. A case decided in North Dakota raised the question about whether state courts have jurisdiction over alleged libelous material that was posted online from another state. And in a case decided in Louisiana, a court defended a public university professor's right to make critical statements online when they relate to issues of public concern.
Although in both cases the defendant was accused of posting libelous information online, the two courts relied on different legal standards and made nearly contradictory rulings. In North Dakota, the state supreme court ordered a college student to pay $3 million in a libel claim brought by a former professor whom she posted comments about online. In contrast, a Louisiana appeals court threw out a libel suit against a professor, ruling that he deserved constitutional protection for his online articles that criticized his college administration.
The North Dakota Supreme Court and the Louisiana Court of Appeal would have reached the same decisions in both cases even if the situations had not dealt with the Internet, according to Dan Ortiz, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School. Internet speech is typically scrutinized under the same laws that apply to print speech, Ortiz said.
The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed a district court judgment in a multi-million dollar libel claim against Glenda Miskin, a former University of North Dakota student, for her 'harassing' remarks to a professor. The court ruled that Miskin had libeled and slandered John Wagner, her one-time physics professor, and intentionally interfered with his business relationships.
Miskin was indefinitely suspended from the University of North Dakota in 1999 for violating the student code of conduct by stalking and harassing Wagner and for disrupting campus offices.
Wagner then sued Miskin the following year, accusing her of making defamatory and sexually explicit remarks about him on her Web site and on campus.
The articles published on Miskin's Web site, www.undnews.com, relate almost exclusively to the University of North Dakota and its staff, according to court documents. The expressed purpose of the site is to 'prevent others from being abused by UND' and generate exposure to help 'UND's administration correct past problems so all of us can be proud of the University of North Dakota.'
Miskin, who now lives in Minnesota, claimed that North Dakota courts did not have jurisdiction over the statements she made on the Internet because she posted articles on her Web site from outside the state.
The North Dakota Supreme Court determined that it had grounds to rule in the case because Miskin 'did particularly and directly target North Dakota with her website, specifically resident John Wagner.' The court said Miskin was living in North Dakota when many of the communications in question took place.
The court, which had not previously considered an Internet jurisdiction case, did not set a standard for cases involving Internet postings from out-of-state sources.
Miskin said that she does not plan to pay the $3 million because the basis for the decision 'was unconstitutional.' She said she has filed for a rehearing and plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In another case involving statements made online, the court's decision hinged on whether the information was of public interest.
The Louisiana Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, threw out a defamation lawsuit brought against a former professor at University of Louisiana at Monroe for his highly critical remarks about administrators. Former ULM professor John Scott posted them on his Web site, 'Truth At ULM,' which he once operated anonymously.
Richard Baxter, the former vice president of external affairs for the university, filed multiple defamation suits claiming that Scott had made statements that damaged his reputation.
According to court records, Scott posted comments in 2000-01 that called into question Baxter's actions in 'barring' a reporter from a meeting and labeled him the 'ULM Administration hatchet man' and the 'Vice-President of Excremental Affairs.'
The three-judge panel of the appeals court based its decision on the state's version of an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law that weeds out 'meritless' lawsuits meant to chill protected speech concerning public matters.
In its ruling, the court said the law protected Scott. His Web site, truthatulm.com, contained strong criticisms of what he deemed was 'mismanagement and abuse of office' by members of the administration of former university President Lawson Swearingen.
'We believe that publishing statements relating to matters of public interest on a website is an exercise of one's constitutional right of free speech,' the court said. 'Scott's writing on the website involved matters of public interest, namely the operation of a public university and the conduct of its administrators in fulfilling their duties.'
The court applied the Supreme Court's 'actual malice' standard for defamation claims brought by public officials. Baxter was forced to prove that the statements were either false or that they were made in reckless disregard of the truth, which the court said he did not do.
The court dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning Baxter cannot file it again, and ordered him to pay Scott's legal fees.
CASES: Baxter v. Scott, No. 37,092, 847 So.2d 225 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2003).
Wagner v. Miskin, 660 N.W.2d 593 (N.D. 2003).
Fall 2003, reports