Student appeals libel case stemming from campus crime alert

RHODE ISLAND — A former Johnson & Wales University student who sued the school for libel after it released a crime alert falsely identifying him as an attacker is appealing a district court’s summary judgment in favor of the university.

The court ruled in May that the university is not liable for information in a crime release so long as it “correctly or reasonably believes” that it needed to speak out to protect its own interests or the interests of the public.

The university’s motion for summary judgment cited the federal Jeanne Clery Act as its reason for issuing the alert after a JWU student, identified as Christopher Havlik, punched another student, who fell and fractured his skull in September 2004.

The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires all public and private colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to release information about campus crime and safety in a timely manner. Crimes that merit reports are murder, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, manslaughter, arson and certain liquor, drug and weapons violations.

Havlik was expelled from the university in September 2004. A state district court found him guilty of assault in 2004, but a trial jury acquitted him in a May 2005 appeal to the state superior court. He then filed the suit against the university.

Jack Mahoney, an attorney representing Havlik, argued that the Clery Act did not compel the university to issue the release because the incident was an assault, not an “aggravated assault” as the act specifies. He added that if the university was not required to issue the release, then it can be held liable for the information in the alert.

But the district court determined that the incident should have been labeled an aggravated assault because the victim “suffered a severe or aggravated bodily injury” and, therefore, the university is shielded from liability for the false information.

Mahoney also argued that the incident did not occur on school property so it was not subject to the Clery Act. The court concluded that “the incident occurred in an area that meets the statutory definition of the term ‘public property’ and thus meets the Act’s requirement for the location of a reportable offense.”

Daniel Carter, senior vice president at Security on Campus, a Clery Act watchdog organization, said the student’s appeal, if successful, could deter universities from issuing timely crime alerts in the future for fear of libel lawsuits. This chilling effect would be “a bad thing,” he added.

“This precedent is very important,” Carter said. “It says that as long as colleges are making a good-faith effort [to warn the campus community], they are protected. They are empowered to make these kinds of warnings as necessary.”