Professor sues student newspaper for defamation

MINNESOTA — The adviser to a student newspaper being sued for defamation said reporters will continue their work, but he said he worries the threat of legal action could discourage other student newspapers around the country.

Michael Vadnie, adviser to the University Chronicle, the student newspaper at St. Cloud State University, said the newspaper would remain “aggressive” in its reporting under his watch.

Former dean Richard Lewis, who is currently a history professor at the university, filed suit in Stearns County District Court in September against the Chronicle.

The Chronicle published an article on Oct. 23, 2003, quoting a former student who accused Lewis of anti-Semitism, racial slurs and obstruction of free speech.

Editors retracted the article on Nov. 20, 2003. The correction apologized to Lewis and said the article “contained serious errors.”

Vadnie said he worries the lawsuit will dampen reporting at other schools.

“I hope they don’t pause,” Vadnie said. “I hope they continue to report.”

Vadnie said the lawsuit did not have a “chilling effect” at the Chronicle because the editors at the time of the incident graduated.

Chronicle attorney Mark Anfinson said he does not know what Lewis has to gain from the suit. The newspaper holds no libel insurance and does not possess a large advertising budget, Anfinson said.

“[The damages] are very negligible in a case like this,” Anfinson said.

Lewis’ attorney, Marshall Tanick, said his client wants “vindication for his reputation.”

Tanick said the retraction was “unsuccessful” in restoring Lewis’ reputation.

“We retracted the story on legal advice,” Vadnie said. “We were wrong and we printed a falsity. We’re not proud of it.”

Chronicle reporters had learned an important lesson not to rely on one-source stories because of the case, Vadnie said.

Lewis first filed suit in a district court in Ramsey County on March 11, 2004, against the university. The suit described the Chronicle as an agent of the school, making St. Cloud State liable for its actions.

A Ramsey County district court judge dismissed Lewis’ lawsuit, ruling the university cannot be held liable for the newspaper because it does not hold or exercise editorial control over it. An appeals court affirmed the lower court ruling and the state \nSupreme Court refused to hear the case.

The university has taken a “laissez-faire” approach to the newspaper and has shown a “time-honored” commitment to the Chronicle, Vadnie said.

Vadnie said the newspaper receives $130,000 in student activity fees and generates further revenue from advertisements. Any profit is returned to the student activity fund at the end of the year.

Lewis is “entitled to exercise his rights to sue for defamation” but Vadnie said he had faith in the merits of the case if it goes to trial.