Court dismisses former governor hopeful's libel suit against Mich. students

MICHIGAN — A Michigan circuit court has dismissed former gubernatorial candidate David Kniffen’s libel lawsuit against a University of Michigan student newspaper.

The April 19, 2010, article titled “Corruption in Our Own Backyard” faulted Kniffen for the treatment of Ashley D’Agnostino, a Wayne State University student, who was living with her mother in a rental home owned by Kniffen’s girlfriend. It appeared in the Michigan Independent, a progressive student publication at the university.

“The bottom line is they printed a completely false story that had nothing to do with me regardless,” Kniffen said. “It was simply retaliation against my girlfriend, who is their landlord and because I was trying to run for a public office that they attacked me because they could get the publicity.”

Kniffen did not deny claims that the D’Agnostinos may have been harassed, but indicated he wasn’t involved in the situation.

“I did nothing and had nothing to do with it, and regardless if they were harassed or felt harassed, it wasn’t by me,” Kniffen said. “They used their position to try and garner attention at my expense and it’s not right and it’s not fair.”

Kniffen included five students in the lawsuit, including the editor in chief, editor at large, publisher and staff writer.

Kniffen said the lawsuit was dismissed Feb. 9 primarily because he didn’t file a timely discovery request and the court found him to be a public official, which increased the standard for a libel claim.

“It was basically a matter of I didn’t timely file discovery and really gather enough information to prove my case, I had the burden of proof,” Kniffen said. “And I guess the other side of it is the court classified me as a public figure. That was up to the court’s discretion. Had I not been held to that higher standard, the case would have moved forward and I probably ultimately would have won because it was false information.”

Public figures are required to prove “actual malice” in libel cases meaning the publisher knew the information was false or acted in “reckless disregard” of the truth.

Kniffen said since he wasn’t ever placed on the gubernatorial ballot, he doesn’t believe he reached the notoriety needed to become a public figure.

“At the time I filed the lawsuit I was trying to get on the ballot and I never did get on the ballot for governor, and because I never got on the ballot I never reached the level of notoriety that I believe [is necessary] for a public figure,” Kniffen said. “But that was a matter for the court to decide.”

Bill Burdett, attorney for the Michigan Independent, said he was “really pleased” with the dismissal and gave some general tips on how to avoid libel lawsuits.

“Student journalists can do a number of things. They can speak in terms of opinions rather than facts if they don’t have the ability to follow up,” Burdett said. “First and foremost they should always make a call to try and confirm facts but if they can’t do that student journalists should talk in terms of ‘this is our opinion that we are expressing’ rather than simply just saying it as some sort of facts or ‘it is our understanding that’ so that you report more on someone else’s statements.”

Burdett also said it’s important for student journalists to know their own state’s laws with regards to libel standards.

“This case represents the idea that you can report about someone who happens to be a candidate for public office and without any actual malice you can pretty much say whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean you should and you should try and be as accurate as possible all the time,” Burdett said.

Burdett took the case pro bono as part of the Student Press Law Center’s Attorney Referral Network.

Ewan Compton, the paper’s editor at large, said he was shocked when he found out from a coworker that he was included in the lawsuit.

“I was very surprised because I had nothing to do with that article and I didn’t expect anyone to ever sue the paper,” Compton said. “I frankly didn’t think anyone would actually care enough to.”

Compton said he was happy about the dismissal and felt it was the correct decision.

Kniffen said he could re-file the lawsuit, but doesn’t see a reason since the students included in the lawsuit have since graduated and are no longer affiliated with the publication.

“I could of course re-file it in a higher court, a federal court,” Kniffen said. “But I believe the resolution is that these people no longer work for the newspaper anyway and I don’t see them writing any further slanderous libel stories. I had hoped to reach a settlement sooner and [the students] gotten a retraction printed, but these people no longer work there.”