Minn. court dismisses professor's libel suit

MINNESOTA — A state court debunked a common excuse foradministrative censorship, ruling that a public university cannot be held liablefor an article in a student newspaper because it does not have editorial controlover the publication.

Richard Lewis, former dean of the College of SocialSciences and current professor at St. Cloud State University, brought a libelsuit against the university and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universitysystem because of an article in the University Chronicle, the SCSUstudent newspaper.

But Ramsey County District Court Judge M. MichaelMonahan ruled in June that because the defendants have no control over what thenewspaper publishes, they cannot be held liable for the allegedly libelousarticle.In the Oct. 27, 2003, issue of the University Chronicle,a student claimed that Lewis was anti-Semitic and that he had treated herunfairly.

The newspaper retracted the article on Nov. 20. Thenewspaper’s retraction publicly apologized to Lewis, saying the article“contained serious errors” and that “there is no factualbasis” for some of the assertions made in the story.

Lewis filedsuit March 11, alleging that the paper had published the article “withreckless disregard for the truth or with a high degree of knowledge of thestatements’ probable falsity,” stated his complaint filed with thecourt.But instead of suing the newspaper or its staff, Lewis sued theuniversity and the state university system, trying to prove that the newspaperwas an agent of SCSU and the university system, thus making the defendants thepublishers of the newspaper and vicariously liable for the allegedly libelousarticle.

Vicarious liability usually depends on the power to exercisecontrol where a principal party has the right to control an agent party in theperformance of its duties, said Dave Heller, staff attorney at the Media LawResource Center, which tracks libel cases. Vicarious liability has been upheldwhere the publisher of a commercial newspaper was sued for an allegedly libelousarticle in the publication. 

Heller, however, clarified that because theUniversity Chronicle is an independent student newspaper and is notcontrolled by the university, vicarious liability does not apply because thenewspaper is not an agent of the university.“The Minnesotadecision appears correct because, under basic principles of tort law, statementsin a student-run university newspaper should not be deemed to have beenpublished by the university for purposes of a defamation claim,” Hellersaid.

Judge Monahan agreed, stating that even if the defendants arepublishers of the University Chronicle, they differ from commercialpublishers in that they do not have editorial control over the UniversityChronicle because of First Amendment protections for studenteditors.

“[The] defendants’ role with respect to [theUniversity Chronicle] cannot be a basis for liability because their roleis only to advise, to encourage, and to persuade,” Monahan stated in amemo attached to his order for summary judgment. “The regulationor control of [editorial control and judgment] is prohibited by theSystem’s student publication policy, which is simply a recognition andexpression of the limits imposed on [the university system] by the FirstAmendment,” the judge also stated. 

Monahan’s ruling mirrorsthe 1995 McEvaddy v. City University of New York case, in which a publicuniversity was also sued for an allegedly libelous article in a studentnewspaper.

“The presence of a faculty advisor to the paper, whoseadvice was nonbinding, and the financing of the paper through student activityfees dispensed by defendant, do not demonstrate such editorial control orinfluence over the paper by defendant as to suggest an agencyrelationship,” the McEvaddy ruling stated.

Linda Kohl,spokeswoman for MNSCU, said “the judge essentially upheld our position that neither the university nor the system has editorial control over thenewspaper.”

Gail Olson, MNSCU general counsel, said the court tookstudent press freedom “very seriously.”

“The judgeclearly recognized the First Amendment protections afforded to studentnewspapers, like the Chronicle,” Olson added.

The ruling didnot surprise Mike Vadnie, University Chronicle adviser, because theuniversity does not attempt to impose editorial control over the publication, hesaid. 

“If a student newspaper at a public university is trulyindependent and truly free, the university cannot be held liable,” Vadniesaid. “One who practices editorial control invites a lawsuit.” 

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, called thedecision “good news” for the student press.

“It mayreduce some of the anxiety administrators have, but I’m afraid it willtake more than this one court ruling to reverse this trend — the risky anddangerous trend to chill student speech,” Haynes said.

He citedmoney and image as other reasons schools might still try to censor the studentpress. 

“It’s tough because on many campuses today there isa clamp down on free student press. Anytime a court gives a little bit moreprotection and recognizes that students on campuses have rights, it’s goodnews for the First Amendment, and it’s good news for the vital studentpress,” Haynes added.

While the court ruled that the university andthe university system were not at fault, it did say that the article probablydefamed Lewis.

“We’re gratified the judge recognized that thearticle was defamatory,” Marshall Tanick, Lewis’ lawyer, told theSt. Cloud Times in a June 11 article. “This is a minor, temporarysetback.”Lewis has appealed the ruling to the Minnesota Court ofAppeals.

CASE: Lewis v. St. Cloud University, et al., CourtFile No. 2-C2-04-002244 (Minn. Dist. Ct. Ramsey County June 7, 2004).

Read a copy of the decision in Lewis v. St. Cloud State University, No. C2-04-2244 (Dist. Ct. Ramsey County, June 9, 2004).For more information on the issue of liability and the student press (including past decisions absolving schools from liability where they exercised a “hands-off” policy with regards to editorial content), see our guide, Liability for the Student Media.Read previous coverage