Libel suit against Cornell newspaper dismissed

NEW YORK -- A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a Cornell University graduate's $1 million lawsuit that claimed a campus newspaper libeled him in a 1983 article that linked him to burglary and theft charges. Kevin* Vanginderen argued that digitizing and posting the archived article constituted "republication," thus making the paper liable again for the article, though the statute of limitations for libel claims against the original story long ago ran out.

But Judge Barry Moskowitz ruled the article about Vanginderen was substantially true. He granted the university's motion to strike the lawsuit based on California's legislation barring "strategic lawsuits against public participation" without addressing the republication question. Moskowitz found the case met the special "anti-SLAPP" statute qualifications as an issue of public interest, making Vanginderen responsible for Cornell's attorney fees.

"From the university perspective, this is an important issue on the accuracy of a historical record and on the freedom of the press," said Nelson Roth, who represents Cornell. "We're happy the decision was carefully written and considered."

Vanginderen, a practicing California attorney, initially filed the complaint in October 2007 against Cornell University because the university press office owns the Cornell Chronicle, a non-student publication. The suit alleged the 1983 article in the Chronicle was libelous and constituted a public disclosure of private facts resulting in "loss of reputation" and "mental anguish."

Two sentences on page six in the March police blotter that year said campus authorities charged Vanginderen with third-degree burglary in connection with "10 incidents of petit larceny and five burglaries on campus over a period of a year" and that public safety officials "reported recovering some $474 worth of stolen goods from him."

Vanginderen later admitted to police he stole items including books and a calculator, and he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor in exchange for prosecutors not filing felony charges and not recommending punishment harsher than probation, according to court documents. A judge sealed records regarding a second-degree burglary charge, and little else resulted from the matter until Cornell University began its digitization project in August 2007.

Cornell then became the 27th institution to partner with Google Inc.'s Book Search Library Project, which made up to 500,000 works from the university's library available online, including back issues of the Cornell Chronicle.

Vanginderen stumbled upon the publication for the first time in September 2007 when he conducted a Google search of his own name. He asked Cornell officials to remove it, but they refused, so he followed with a lawsuit, saying the university "refused to delete this information from the public domain resulting in potentially infinite occurrences of new counts of liability for libel." He claimed the article falsely suggested he was responsible for multiple crimes in which he denied involvement.

Though the article may have been "poorly written," the "gist" of it was true, and Vanginderen cannot prevail on his libel claim, Moskowitz ruled.

Roth, while happy with the outcome, said it was unfortunate the ruling did not address the issue of republication, especially because digitization is becoming increasingly common among libraries and newspapers -- agencies responsible for preserving a historical record.

"If we were to redact or delete that information like [Vanginderen]'s asking us to do, we would be redacting or deleting that part of the historical record, a record that was always available on the library shelves," Roth said.

Meanwhile, Vanginderen filed an additional 18-page, $10 million lawsuit in April against Cornell and one of its attorneys. He alleged the university's initial report naming his as responsible for 15 crimes was libelous, and that the attorney, by submitting that report to the court as evidence in Vanginderen's previous lawsuit, republished those libelous statements.

Roth has filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss that case, as well, and Vanginderen's reply is due later this month. He did not return messages left at his office on Wednesday.

CORRECTION, June 5: An earlier version of this article misstated Kevin Vanginderen's first name. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story.

Cornell Chronicle, Cornell University, New York, news

More Information

Vanginderen v. Cornell Univ., No. 07-2045 (S.D. Cal. June 3, 2008).

Read the 1983 Chronicle issue in question. (PDF, 9.5 MB)