Libel suits burden three student papers

Two libel lawsuits involving student newspapers in Indiana and Minnesota were filed in the past few months, while a court dismissed a libel suit filed against a student paper in Massachusetts.

In Indiana, a recent graduate of Whiteland Community High School is suing the Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation after an article in the senior edition of the student newspaper contained allegedly defamatory comments about her.

Heide Peek, who graduated in 2002, was given the “worst reputation” award in the May 2002 issue of Smoke Signals, the school’s monthly student newspaper. The paper also said her favorite song was “Underneath Your Clothes,” and in the “ambition” category, made a reference to her being raped by a monkey, the lawsuit states.

Peek was particularly sensitive to the comments because she was allegedly raped in April 2002, the lawsuit states. 

Peek filed suit in Johnson County Superior Court 2 in September 2003. In addition to the school district, the lawsuit also names the superintendent, the high school principal, vice principals and the student newspaper adviser as defendants. No student journalists were named in the suit.

“We had some kids in their earnest [effort] to be funny and clever were really very hurtful to this young woman. I don’t think they were trying to be hurtful; I think they were trying to be funny, but the upshot of the thing is they were very hurtful so her,” said J.T. Coopman, the school district’s superintendent.

But the school and its administrators should have protected Peek from the false statements, and they acted negligently by allowing the statements to be published and distributed to the student body, according to the lawsuit.

“This is a case that … has everything to do with reckless, malicious behavior on the part of students and administrators at the school corporation and school district allowing vicious comments to be made about my client, especially at a very fragile point in her emotional well-being,” said Kevin Betz, Peek’s attorney, who added that a hearing date has not been set.

The incident was a catalyst for the creation of a student publications policy, a project the school district started before being notified of the lawsuit. The policy is based on the recommendation of an attorney for the Indiana School Board Association, Coopman said.

The policy, which was adopted in February, prohibits students from publishing anything that, among other things, “libels or slanders any specific person or persons,” invades privacy or may disrupt school operations. The policy also requires students to “submit all materials to be published in a school-sponsored publication to the faculty adviser for review prior to publication.”

“The intent of the policy is not for censorship, but really it’s more of a protection so that we don’t have another situation occur as is described in [Peek’s] lawsuit,” Coopman said.

Comments in another student newspaper were the impetus for a libel suit in St. Cloud, Minn., where a former dean at St. Cloud State University is suing the university and the Minnesota State College and University System.

Richard D. Lewis filed suit in Ramsey County District Court March 11 after The University Chronicle, a student-owned, student-run publication, ran the article “Past actions haunt Lewis” Oct. 27. The article never quoted Lewis and made several allegations about him, including that he is anti-Semitic. The University Chronicle retracted the article Nov. 20 and apologized to Lewis, who sued anyway, saying the Oct. 27 article was published “with reckless disregard for the truth or with a high degree of knowledge of the statements’ probable falsity,” according to the lawsuit.

“The article was inexcusably defamatory and was such shoddy journalism that many people, including those on the faculty, urged [Lewis] to bring this lawsuit,” said Marshall H. Tanick, Lewis’ attorney.

The University Chronicle is not a named defendant in the suit even though courts have traditionally ruled that a public university cannot be held liable for the content of a student-run publication if the university has no control over that content, as is the case with The University Chronicle.

“The suit seeks in a way to go where no person’s really gone before, which is trying [to hold] the state of Minnesota liable for defamation under the guise of an independent and student-run newspaper, a recognized student organization under student government rules,” said Michael Vadnie, The University Chronicle’s adviser.

The lawsuit seeks a judgment of at least $50,000 against the university and MNSCU, costs incurred and other compensation “as may be deemed just and equitable.” A jury will hear the case if it goes to trial, Tanick said.

Judge Michael M. Monahan is scheduled to hear a motion for summary judgment June 4.

Lewis probably hopes that he has more success in his libel suit than Adeleke Atewologun, a former political science professor at Salem State College in Massachusetts. Atewologun filed a libel suit against the school, the editor of a student paper and the paper’s adviser last year, but Essex County Superior Court Judge Nancy Staffier threw it out in October.

In December 2000, Ed Justen, editor of The Log, wrote an article about sexual harassment complaints brought by two students against Atewologun. Additionally, several students and faculty members complained that Atewologun discriminated against them. In the article, Justen referred to a domestic disturbance that occurred at Atewologun’s home in 1994, saying the former professor had been arrested. Police did not arrest Atewologun, although he was removed from his home and made the subject of a restraining order.

The case was discarded because it did not “come forward with clear and convincing evidence that the defamatory statement was published with actual malice in order to defeat the motion for summary judgment.” 

Courts have defined actual malice as knowledge that the statements published were false or were published with reckless disregard for the truth.

“Atewologun has failed to present evidence from which the court can draw an inference of actual malice,” Staffier wrote.

Atewologun, whom Salem State fired in November 2001, has not appealed the decision.

CASE: Atewologun v. Salem State College, et al., Civil Action No. 002352B (Mass. Super. Ct. Essex Co. Oct. 27, 2003)