Former dean sues Minn. university for libel over article in student newspaper

A former dean atSt. Cloud State University is suing the school and the Minnesota State Collegeand University system for libel because of an article that appeared in thestudent newspaper.

Richard D. Lewis, who has been at the university for27 years, was the subject of an unflattering article that ran in the Oct. 27issue of the University Chronicle, a student newspaper at St. CloudState.

According to court documents, the article, “Past actions hauntLewis,” written by Regina Eckes, describes the academic journey of one studentwho “did not expect to have her education ruined while being taught the politicsbehind academia.” Among other allegations in the article, the student claimedthat Lewis “mistreated” her and that “Lewis was anti-Semitic.”

Thearticle did not quote Lewis.

The University Chronicle retractedthe article on Nov. 20. The newspaper apologized to Lewis, saying the article”contained serious errors” and that “there is no factual basis” for some of theassertions made in the story.

Lewis filed suit March 11, alleging thatthe paper published the article “with reckless disregard for the truth or with ahigh degree of knowledge of the statements’ probable falsity,” according to thecomplaint filed in Ramsey County District Court.

“The article wasinexcusably defamatory and was such shoddy journalism that many people,including those on the faculty, urged [Lewis] to bring this lawsuit,” saidMarshall H. Tanick, Lewis’ attorney. Lewis is suing for $50,000.

“Ouronly response at this point is that the [Minnesota] attorney general is lookingat the legal issues and will be helping us prepare a response,” said Linda Kohl,spokeswoman for MNSCU.

The University Chronicle, which is not adefendant in the case, stands by its retraction and apology and does not thinkthere is any merit in Lewis’ defamation claim.

In a separate action,Lewis is suing St. Cloud State University and MNSCU claiming age discriminationafter he was demoted from his high-level administrative position as dean of theCollege of Social Sciences to a faculty teaching position. That lawsuit ispending in front of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Tanicksaid.

SPLC View: As the newspaper’s adviser Michael Vadnie said, “[This]suit seeks in a way to go where no person’s really gone before, which is tryingto hold the state of Minnesota liable for defamation” for what was published inan independent, student-run newspaper.

The reason for that, of course, isclear: the dean and his lawyer want access to the university’s – that is, thestate of Minnesota’s – “deep pockets.” Courts, however, have consistently ruledthat a public university cannot be held liable for the content of a student-runpublication as long as the university does not dictate the newspaper’s content. That was and is the case here. The University Chronicle is astudent-owned, student-run publication that – by both school policy and practice- is free from content control by the university. If the dean has a beef, itshould be with the student editors who published the article.