Court dismisses libel suit against Mass. college reporter

A state court hasthrown out a lawsuit filed by a former Salem State College professor who claimedthe editor of the school’s student newspaper libeled him.

Essex CountySuperior Court Justice Nancy Staffier ruled on Nov. 3 that there was notsufficient evidence that Ed Justen, former editor of The Log, libeledformer political science professor Adeleke Atewologun.

Atewologun’slawsuit stemmed from an article Justen wrote for The Log that saidAtewologun had been arrested for domestic abuse that occurred at Atewologun’shome in 1994. According to Justen’s attorney, Atewologun was not formallyarrested but was removed from his home and was the subject of a restrainingorder. The article was published Dec. 11, 2000, and in it Justen cited theincident as the beginning of the former professor’s legal problems. Justenrelied on court records and an eyewitness account of the incident for his story,according to court documents.

At the time the article was published, twofemale students had accused Atewologun of sexually harassing them. Additionally,several students and faculty members complained that Atewologun discriminatedagainst them. Salem State College placed Atewologun on administrative leave inJanuary 2000 pending the outcome of an investigation into the allegations.Atewologun was fired in November 2001, according to court documents.

Thecourt found that Atewologun was a “limited public figure” and as a resultrequired him to “come forward with clear and convincing evidence that thedefamatory statement was published with actual malice in order to defeat themotion for summary judgment,” according to Staffier’s ruling. A limited publicfigure is a person who has voluntarily become public because of his or herinvolvement in a specific matter of public scrutiny orcontroversy.

“Atewologun has failed to present evidence from which thecourt can draw an inference of actual malice,” Staffier wrote. Courts havedefined actual malice as knowledge that the statements published were false orwere published with reckless disregard for the truth.

SPLC View: Among other things, this case points outthe importance in accurately reporting the legal status of an individualinvolved in the criminal justice system. Being “convicted” is not the same asbeing “charged.” Being “charged” is not the same as being “arrested.” And asthis case demonstrates, being “arrested” is not the same as being detained orremoved from an area by police. It can be confusing, but it is essential that areporter recognizes and understands the distinctions. An excellent resource is”Covering Crime and Justice: A Guide for Journalists,” available for free at: