MINNESOTA — A judge this week dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former St. Cloud State University dean who sued the student newspaper after it published comments that suggested he was anti-Semitic and a racist.
The court ruled that although the comments were admittedly wrong, Richard D. Lewis, former dean of St. Cloud State’s College of Social Sciences, is a public figure and he did not prove the newspaper published the comments knowing they were incorrect, which the “actual malice” legal standard requires.
Michael Vadnie, editor of the St. Cloud State University Chronicle, said he and his staff “breathed a sigh of relief” when hearing the judge’s decision to dismiss the libel suit.
“We’re happy that the law works, and there’s breathing room for mistakes,” said Vadnie. But he said the newspaper staff felt bad they published the story.
In the fall of 2003, following the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit involving Jewish faculty members, the university reassigned Lewis from his position as dean. The newspaper’s article chronicling his troubles was published Oct. 27, 2003, and Lewis sued, claiming defamation. The article contained an interview with Robbi Hoy, a former student involved in a previous dispute with Lewis, who claimed she overheard Lewis making racial and derogatory comments.
After publication, Hoy told the Chronicle reporter that the remarks she heard came from another professor, not Lewis. The newspaper published a retraction in November 2003, but Lewis continued the libel lawsuit.
Mark Anfinson, the Chronicle’s lawyer, conceded the article was “imperfect,” but said he was pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit.
The court dismissed the case because Lewis was a public figure, the opinion said, and he could not prove actual malice, or that the comments were published even though the newspaper knew they were incorrect.
In addition to finding that Lewis had not shown “actual malice” on the part of the Chronicle, the court also found that Lewis’ refusal to comment to the newspaper hurt his libel claim.
Without a dismissal, the court warned that “the voice of this newspaper and others is in danger of being chilled ? if not stilled ? as no student publication would hereafter be able to risk covering a public controversy.”
Anfinson said this case is a “much-needed reinvigoration” of the actual malice doctrine.
“It’s no slam dunk,” Anfinson said. “It is a glorious and proper application of the actual malice doctrine, which is so vital to protect American journalism, especially student journalism.”
Anfinson said although the comments were clearly wrong, the students were generally motivated by “positive values” and deserved proper defense.
“To nail these students over an honest mistake in the way the plaintiff sought was wrong,” Anfinson said.
Lewis and his attorney, Marshall Tanick, could not be reached for comment.
Vadnie and Anfinson said they hope that Lewis will accept the apology and the court’s decision, but they expect an appeal within 60 days.