Minn. court dismisses professor's libel suit

Because university had no control over student paper, it is not liable, court rules

MINNESOTA -- A state court debunked a common excuse for administrative censorship, ruling that a public university cannot be held liable for an article in a student newspaper because it does not have editorial control over the publication.

Richard Lewis, former dean of the College of Social Sciences and current professor at St. Cloud State University, brought a libel suit against the university and the Minnesota State Colleges and University system because of an article in the University Chronicle, the SCSU student newspaper.

But Ramsey County District Court Judge M. Michael Monahan ruled in June that because the defendants have no control over what the newspaper publishes, they cannot be held liable for the allegedly libelous article.In the Oct. 27, 2003, issue of the University Chronicle, a student claimed that Lewis was anti-Semitic and that he had treated her unfairly.

The newspaper retracted the article on Nov. 20. The newspaper’s retraction publicly apologized to Lewis, saying the article “contained serious errors” and that “there is no factual basis” for some of the assertions made in the story.

Lewis filed suit March 11, alleging that the paper had published the article “with reckless disregard for the truth or with a high degree of knowledge of the statements’ probable falsity,” stated his complaint filed with the court.But instead of suing the newspaper or its staff, Lewis sued the university and the state university system, trying to prove that the newspaper was an agent of SCSU and the university system, thus making the defendants the publishers of the newspaper and vicariously liable for the allegedly libelous article.

Vicarious liability usually depends on the power to exercise control where a principal party has the right to control an agent party in the performance of its duties, said Dave Heller, staff attorney at the Media Law Resource Center, which tracks libel cases. Vicarious liability has been upheld where the publisher of a commercial newspaper was sued for an allegedly libelous article in the publication. 

Heller, however, clarified that because the University Chronicle is an independent student newspaper and is not controlled by the university, vicarious liability does not apply because the newspaper is not an agent of the university.“The Minnesota decision appears correct because, under basic principles of tort law, statements in a student-run university newspaper should not be deemed to have been published by the university for purposes of a defamation claim,” Heller said.

Judge Monahan agreed, stating that even if the defendants are publishers of the University Chronicle, they differ from commercial publishers in that they do not have editorial control over the University Chronicle because of First Amendment protections for student editors.

“[The] defendants’ role with respect to [the University Chronicle] cannot be a basis for liability because their role is only to advise, to encourage, and to persuade,” Monahan stated in a memo attached to his order for summary judgment. “The regulation or control of [editorial control and judgment] is prohibited by the System’s student publication policy, which is simply a recognition and expression of the limits imposed on [the university system] by the First Amendment,” the judge also stated. 

Monahan’s ruling mirrors the 1995 McEvaddy v. City University of New York case, in which a public university was also sued for an allegedly libelous article in a student newspaper.

“The presence of a faculty advisor to the paper, whose advice was nonbinding, and the financing of the paper through student activity fees dispensed by defendant, do not demonstrate such editorial control or influence over the paper by defendant as to suggest an agency relationship,” the McEvaddy ruling stated.

Linda Kohl, spokeswoman for MNSCU, said “the judge essentially upheld our position that neither the university nor the system has editorial control over the newspaper.”

Gail Olson, MNSCU general counsel, said the court took student press freedom “very seriously.”

“The judge clearly recognized the First Amendment protections afforded to student newspapers, like the Chronicle,” Olson added.

The ruling did not surprise Mike Vadnie, University Chronicle adviser, because the university does not attempt to impose editorial control over the publication, he said. 

“If a student newspaper at a public university is truly independent and truly free, the university cannot be held liable,” Vadnie said. “One who practices editorial control invites a lawsuit.” 

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, called the decision “good news” for the student press.

“It may reduce some of the anxiety administrators have, but I’m afraid it will take more than this one court ruling to reverse this trend -- the risky and dangerous trend to chill student speech,” Haynes said.

He cited money and image as other reasons schools might still try to censor the student press. 

“It’s tough because on many campuses today there is a clamp down on free student press. Anytime a court gives a little bit more protection and recognizes that students on campuses have rights, it’s good news for the First Amendment, and it’s good news for the vital student press,” Haynes added.

While the court ruled that the university and the university system were not at fault, it did say that the article probably defamed Lewis.

“We’re gratified the judge recognized that the article was defamatory,” Marshall Tanick, Lewis’ lawyer, told the St. Cloud Times in a June 11 article. “This is a minor, temporary setback.”Lewis has appealed the ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

CASE: Lewis v. St. Cloud University, et al., Court File No. 2-C2-04-002244 (Minn. Dist. Ct. Ramsey County June 7, 2004).

Read a copy of the decision in Lewis v. St. Cloud State University, No. C2-04-2244 (Dist. Ct. Ramsey County, June 9, 2004).For more information on the issue of liability and the student press (including past decisions absolving schools from liability where they exercised a "hands-off" policy with regards to editorial content), see our guide, Liability for the Student Media.Read previous coverage

Fall 2004, reports