Mass. appeals court dismisses libel claim against former student journalist

MASSACHUSETTS — A state appeals court last week dismisseda libel suit against a former student journalist who was suedby a Wellesley College professor.

Professor Tony Martin claimed former Massachusetts Instituteof Technology student Avik Roy libeled him in a 1993 article printedin Counterpoint, a publication written by MIT and Wellesleystudents. The appeals court on May 8 affirmed a trial court’sdecision that Martin was a public figure at the time the articlewas published and had failed to meet his burden of proving "actualmalice" on Roy’s part.

The decision marks the apparent end to an eight-year legal battlethat was prompted by Roy’s article. The piece contained inaccurateinformation stating that Martin had been granted tenure only afterhe sued the university for racial discrimination. Counterpointlater printed a correction that acknowledged Martin had gainedtenure prior to his bias lawsuit.

Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Judith Fabricant foundin her 1998 ruling that as a public figure, Martin failed to provethat Roy wrote the statement with actual malice — knowledge thatit was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. Fabricantalso said Martin did not show how the article substantially harmedhis reputation.

Attorney Robert Bertsche, who represented Roy pro bono,hailed the appeals court’s ruling.

"This decision should be a clarion call to student journalistseverywhere," Bertsche said, "the First Amendment protectsyou to the same extent that it protects professional reporters.Student journalists need to be careful in their reporting, butthey don’t have to be intimidated into avoiding controversialtopics. If an honest mistake is made, as happened here, the lawwill protect you."

In writing the appeals court’s opinion, Associate Justice ElizabethA. Porada found the lower court had acted appropriately on allcounts, including Martin’s status as a public figure.

"Specifically, [Fabricant] ruled that she would haveconcluded that Martin was a public figure based upon her findingsthat a public controversy existed regarding Martin’s scholarship,teaching methods, and qualifications as a tenured professor,"Porada said in the opinion. "Martin had injected himselfinto the controversy and participated therein by his public lecturesand writings, which had attracted national media attention."

Martin has faced criticism since 1991 when he used a book publishedby the Nation of Islam, "The Secret Relationship BetweenBlacks and Jews," as a text in his courses at Wellesley.

"Professor Martin had been the subject of unflatteringpublicity from everyone from David Brinkley to Ted Koppel, andfrom The Boston Globe to The Washington Post,"Bertsche said. "And whom does he choose to sue? An impecuniousgraduate student without the assets to defend himself."

Bertsche said the case was the first libel claim against astudent journalist to go to trial in Massachusetts.

Neither Martin nor his lawyer, Winston Kendall, returned callsseeking comment. Bertsche has not been notified if Martin plansto appeal.

Case: 767 N.E.2d 603 (Mass. App. Ct. 2002)