Louisiana court dismisses libel suit against professor for “Truth at ULM” Web site

A Louisianastate appellate court threw out a defamation lawsuit brought against a formerprofessor at University of Louisiana at Monroe for his highly critical remarksabout administrators, which he had posted on his once anonymous Website.

Richard Baxter, the former vice president of external affairs forthe university, filed multiple defamation suits claiming the site, which formerULM professor John Scott had operated anonymously, carried several remarks abouthim that damaged his reputation. According to court records, Scott postedcomments in 2000-01 that called into question Baxter’s actions in “barring” areporter from a meeting and labeled him the “ULM Administration hatchet man” andthe “Vice-President of Excremental Affairs.” Last spring, Scott revealed hisidentity and closed down the site when Baxter filed a suit against the site’sInternet provider for not removing alleged defamatory content.

Thethree-judge panel of the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, based itsdecision on the state’s version of an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits AgainstPublic Participation) law that weeds out “meritless” lawsuits meant to chillprotected speech concerning public matters. In its May 16 ruling, the court saidthe law protected Scott, whose Web site, “Truth at ULM,” contained strongcriticisms of what he deemed was “mismanagement and abuse of office” by membersof the administration of former university President LawsonSwearingen.

“We believe that publishing statements relating to matters ofpublic interest on a website is an exercise of one’s constitutional right offree speech,” the court said. “Scott’s writing on the website,” the courtcontinued, “involved matters of public interest, namely the operation of apublic university and the conduct of its administrators in fulfilling theirduties.”

The appellate court, in overturning an earlier district courtdecision, ruled Baxter did not provide sufficient evidence to establish that hislawsuit could succeed, a burden of proof set up by Louisiana law. The courtdetermined Baxter acted as a public official in his administrative position atthe university. The court applied the Supreme Court’s “actual malice” standardfor defamation claims brought by public officials, which forced Baxter to provethat the statements were not only false but that they were made in recklessdisregard of the truth, which the court said he did not do.

The courtsaid matters of public concern enjoy constitutional protection, as does Scott’susage of hyperbole in describing Baxter.

“While such comments are likelyupsetting to the subject to which they refer, the Supreme Court has stated that’debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and thatit may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attackson government and public officials,'” the appellate court said.

The courtdismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning Baxter cannot file it again, andordered him to pay Scott’s legal fees.