Libel suit against Cornell newspaper dismissed

NEW YORK — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed aCornell University graduate’s $1 million lawsuit that claimed a campusnewspaper libeled him in a 1983 article that linked him to burglary and theftcharges. Kevin* Vanginderen argued that digitizing and posting the archivedarticle constituted “republication,” thus making the paper liableagain for the article, though the statute of limitations for libel claimsagainst the original story long ago ran out.

But Judge Barry Moskowitz ruled the article about Vanginderen wassubstantially true. He granted the university’s motion to strike thelawsuit based on California’s legislation barring “strategiclawsuits against public participation” without addressing therepublication question. Moskowitz found the case met the special”anti-SLAPP” statute qualifications as an issue of public interest,making Vanginderen responsible for Cornell’s attorney fees.

“From the university perspective, this is an important issue on theaccuracy of a historical record and on the freedom of the press,” saidNelson Roth, who represents Cornell. “We’re happy the decision wascarefully written and considered.”

Vanginderen, a practicing California attorney, initially filed thecomplaint in October 2007 against Cornell University because the universitypress office owns the Cornell Chronicle, a non-student publication. Thesuit alleged the 1983 article in the Chronicle was libelous andconstituted a public disclosure of private facts resulting in “loss ofreputation” and “mental anguish.”

Two sentences on page six in the March police blotter that year said campusauthorities charged Vanginderen with third-degree burglary in connection with”10 incidents of petit larceny and five burglaries on campus over a periodof a year” and that public safety officials “reported recoveringsome $474 worth of stolen goods from him.”

Vanginderen later admitted to police he stole items including books and acalculator, and he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor in exchange forprosecutors not filing felony charges and not recommending punishment harsherthan probation, according to court documents. A judge sealed records regarding asecond-degree burglary charge, and little else resulted from the matter untilCornell University began its digitization project in August 2007.

Cornell then became the 27th institution to partner with GoogleInc.’s Book Search Library Project, which made up to 500,000 works fromthe university’s library available online, including back issues of theCornell Chronicle.

Vanginderen stumbled upon the publication for the first time in September2007 when he conducted a Google search of his own name. He asked Cornellofficials to remove it, but they refused, so he followed with a lawsuit, sayingthe university “refused to delete this information from the public domainresulting in potentially infinite occurrences of new counts of liability forlibel.” He claimed the article falsely suggested he was responsible formultiple crimes in which he denied involvement.

Though the article may have been “poorly written,” the”gist” of it was true, and Vanginderen cannot prevail on his libelclaim, Moskowitz ruled.

Roth, while happy with the outcome, said it was unfortunate the ruling didnot address the issue of republication, especially because digitization isbecoming increasingly common among libraries and newspapers — agenciesresponsible for preserving a historical record.

“If we were to redact or delete that information like[Vanginderen]’s asking us to do, we would be redacting or deleting thatpart of the historical record, a record that was always available on the libraryshelves,” Roth said.

Meanwhile, Vanginderen filed an additional 18-page, $10 million lawsuit inApril against Cornell and one of its attorneys. He alleged theuniversity’s initial report naming his as responsible for 15 crimes waslibelous, and that the attorney, by submitting that report to the court asevidence in Vanginderen’s previous lawsuit, republished those libelousstatements.

Roth has filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss that case, as well, andVanginderen’s reply is due later this month. He did not return messagesleft at his office on Wednesday.

CORRECTION, June 5: An earlier version of this article misstated Kevin Vanginderen’s first name. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story.