Federal court dismisses libel claim against former student journalists

VIRGINIA — A federal judge in January dismissed a libel claim brought by a University of Mary Washington student against two reporters at the student newspaper that published reports of his arrest on charges of stalking and breaking and entering.

In 2003, the Bullet published two articles, written by reporter Anne Braband and edited by Portsia Smith, about the student’s arrest and the subsequent dismissal of the charges. The student, referred to as John Doe in court documents, filed a libel suit in the fall of 2004 against Braband, Smith and 19 other individuals who were officials at the university, claiming he had been defamed in the articles.

But on Jan. 28, 2005, at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the claim against Smith and Braband, saying none of the articles qualified as defamation, slander or libel.

“The Court has reviewed all of the newspaper articles that were at issue in this case and finds that, No. 1, they reported public events, that is, court proceedings,” Brinkema said, according to a court transcript. “No. 2, they were in my view extremely balanced. … Not in any respect would they rise to the level of malice.”

According to Smith, the articles contained information gleaned from police documents and quotes from friends of John Doe. The story ran on the front page alongside a picture of the student, who was well-known on campus, Smith said.

“The charges [we published] … were from court documents. We talked to the victims and got their side of the story, and we also talked to people who were friends of his and kind of vouched for him … so overall we thought it was pretty balanced. Even our professor thought it was pretty balanced,” Smith said. “We had the court records, and he was charged and it’s public information … You can publish whatever’s public.”

Braband and Smith, who graduated in 2004, were represented pro bono by Washington, D.C.-based attorney Joseph Esposito and the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

John Doe did not appeal the dismissal of the claims against Smith and Braband. In February, Doe agreed to dismiss the remainder of the claims against the police and university officials.

Roger Simmons, who represented the student, said the criminal charges against his client, as well as the information in the Bullet articles, were “unfounded,” but said his client felt pursuing the case further was not in his best interest.

“We could have pressed it,” Simmons said. “We just decided it was going to be too long and arduous to take the thing to its ultimate conclusion. … It just was too expensive to keep doing for the person’s long-term best interest. And he needed to get on with his life anyway.”

By Campbell Roth