Court: School not liable for paper

MINNESOTA — A March ruling in a state appeals court reaffirmedthe principle that public colleges and universities are not liable for thecontent of student newspapers as long as school officials are not censoring thenewspapers.

Richard Lewis, a former dean and current professor at St. CloudState University, filed a libel suit against the school and the Minnesota StateColleges and University system when a student accused Lewis of beinganti-Semitic in an article printed in the student newspaper.

In June 2004,the district court judge dismissed Lewis’ case and he appealed. In March,the Court of Appeals ruled that St. Cloud could not be held liable fordefamatory statements printed by the Chronicle, as the newspaper hadautonomous control over what it prints.

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

Lewis claimed a statement in the article, printed inOctober 2003, was “false and reckless,” and the retraction laterprinted by the newspaper—which said the article had “seriouserrors” and “no factual basis”—was inadequate. Despitehis allegations toward the newspaper, Lewis did not name it or its staff asdefendants in the lawsuit.

A policy in place at the school specifies that theSt. Cloud student newspaper, the University Chronicle, is editoriallyindependent from the university and the university and its officials cannotcontrol what the newspaper prints.

Lewis tried to prove that the newspaperwas an agent of the St. Cloud University System and that the university was“vicariously liable” for what the newspaper printed. Vicariousliability, in this case, would depend on the power of the university system toexercise control over the newspaper. But the limitation on the school’s abilityto censor, established in the First Amendment and the university policy, meantthe school could not be held liable.

Marshall Tanick, Lewis’ attorney,said Lewis filed an appeal of the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court inApril. Tanick said that Lewis will continue to name only St. Cloud StateUniversity and the Minnesota State Colleges and University system as defendants.

“Depending on the outcome of the supreme court ruling, we may decideto have other defendants,” Tanick said.

Tanick said the court’s rulingsets a negative precedent for individuals who are libeled.

“We feelthe decision sets a very bad precedent for everyone in the academiccommunity,” Tanick said. “It makes it very difficult for individualswho are defamed to, in college settings, vindicate their reputation. And it alsomakes the newspapers and the schools that harbor them much lessresponsible.”

Linda Kohl, spokeswoman for the Minnesota State Collegesand Universities system, said Lewis did not file suit against the Chroniclebecause the school had more money than the student newspaper.

“Ithink the ruling upholds what we have maintained all along, that the school doesnot have control over the content of the student newspaper,” said Kohl,also noting that the policy at St. Cloud has been implementedsystem-wide.

CASE: Lewis v. St. Cloud State University et al., No. A04-1308, slip op. (Minn. ct. App. Mar 22, 2005)

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