College not liable for student newspaper’s defamatory article, appeals court affirms

A state appeals court on March 22 upheld a district court’s decision that St. Cloud State University is not liable for defamatory statements published in the student-run newspaper.

The court’s decision reaffirms the principle that colleges operating under policies that prohibit the school from intervening in the content of the newspaper will be shielded from liability for what the students publish.

Richard Lewis, a professor and former dean of the College of Social Sciences at St. Cloud State, sued the university for age discrimination after he was demoted from his position as dean. In October 2003 – shortly after Lewis was demoted – the student newspaper, the University Chronicle, published an article by a student who accused Lewis of being anti-Semitic and treating her unfairly in one of his classes. The newspaper retracted the article on Nov. 20, 2003, but Lewis sued the school and the university system in March 2004, alleging that the story was published “with reckless disregard for the truth or with a high degree of knowledge of the statements’ probable falsity.” Lewis did not sue the student who wrote the article or the newspaper’s editors.

A Ramsey County district court ruled against Lewis in June 2004, saying that since St. Cloud State University and the Minnesota State College and University system did not have editorial control over the newspaper, they were not liable for the defamatory statements. The court of appeals upheld that ruling.

Although Lewis argued that the school acted as the publisher of the University Chronicle, the court denied that claim.

“[The school’s] relationship with the Chronicle is, by virtue of [the university system’s] policy and First Amendment constraints, significantly different from a private publisher’s relationship with its newspapers,” the court ruled. “Respondents, unlike a private publisher, have no control over the content of the Chronicle.”

The court based its decision on both the First Amendment and the university system’s “undisputed” binding policy that prohibits school officials from exerting any control over student newspapers.\n \n

Lewis has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court. According to one of his attorneys, Teresa Ayling, Lewis has not decided whether he will file an appeal.

SPLC View: Shopkeepers frequently warn, “If you break it, you own it.” School officials considering censoring their student media (the legal equivalent of “breaking” a free student press) should take heed. While the First Amendment remains the first line of defense against public school censorship, the growing body of student media liability cases, such as this decision, certainly provides another reason why administrative censorship of student media is a bad idea. Not only can censorship land a school in constitutional hot water, it also puts the institution in a risky financial position that it might otherwise easily avoid. If administrators do not interfere in editorial decision-making, courts continue to say that the school – and the school’s “deep pockets” – will not be at risk. The message for school officials: “Please, don’t touch”