Court: School not liable for paper

MINNESOTA — A March ruling in a state appeals court reaffirmed the principle that public colleges and universities are not liable for the content of student newspapers as long as school officials are not censoring the newspapers.

Richard Lewis, a former dean and current professor at St. Cloud State University, filed a libel suit against the school and the Minnesota State Colleges and University system when a student accused Lewis of being anti-Semitic in an article printed in the student newspaper.

In June 2004, the district court judge dismissed Lewis’ case and he appealed. In March, the Court of Appeals ruled that St. Cloud could not be held liable for defamatory statements printed by the Chronicle, as the newspaper had autonomous control over what it prints.

"[The school's] relationship with the Chronicle, is, by virtue of [the university's system's] policy and First Amendment constraints, significantly different from a private publisher's relationship with its newspaper," the court ruled. "Respondents, unlike a private publisher, have no control over the content of the Chronicle."

Lewis claimed a statement in the article, printed in October 2003, was “false and reckless,” and the retraction later printed by the newspaper—which said the article had “serious errors” and “no factual basis”—was inadequate. Despite his allegations toward the newspaper, Lewis did not name it or its staff as defendants in the lawsuit.

A policy in place at the school specifies that the St. Cloud student newspaper, the University Chronicle, is editorially independent from the university and the university and its officials cannot control what the newspaper prints.

Lewis tried to prove that the newspaper was an agent of the St. Cloud University System and that the university was “vicariously liable” for what the newspaper printed. Vicarious liability, in this case, would depend on the power of the university system to exercise control over the newspaper. But the limitation on the school's ability to censor, established in the First Amendment and the university policy, meant the school could not be held liable.

Marshall Tanick, Lewis’ attorney, said Lewis filed an appeal of the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court in April. Tanick said that Lewis will continue to name only St. Cloud State University and the Minnesota State Colleges and University system as defendants.

“Depending on the outcome of the supreme court ruling, we may decide to have other defendants,” Tanick said.

Tanick said the court's ruling sets a negative precedent for individuals who are libeled.

“We feel the decision sets a very bad precedent for everyone in the academic community,” Tanick said. “It makes it very difficult for individuals who are defamed to, in college settings, vindicate their reputation. And it also makes the newspapers and the schools that harbor them much less responsible.”

Linda Kohl, spokeswoman for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, said Lewis did not file suit against the Chronicle because the school had more money than the student newspaper.

“I think the ruling upholds what we have maintained all along, that the school does not have control over the content of the student newspaper,” said Kohl, also noting that the policy at St. Cloud has been implemented system-wide.

CASE: Lewis v. St. Cloud State University et al., No. A04-1308, slip op. (Minn. ct. App. Mar 22, 2005)

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reports, Spring 2005