As a professor of comparative literature, Cornell University’s Walter Cohen undoubtedly has read some pretty racy texts in his time. Nevertheless, it had to be momentarily startling to read in Friday’s Cornell Daily Sun that he’d been named associate dean of the College of Arts and [VERY BAD WORD].
The newspaper’s red-faced explanation? An interloper attending an end-of-semester newsroom celebration must have tampered with the page just before it went to press.
It’s not nice to laugh at other journalists’ misfortunes — because, as editors at Suffolk University can attest — it can happen to anyone.
What the Daily Sun published is cringeworthy, to be sure, but was it libelous?
Happily, we can say that — thanks to a group of equally unfortunate editors at Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times — there is actual judicial precedent that tells us the answer is, “No.”
With apologies for unearthing a buried memory and triggering a bout of journalistic PTSD for those who went through it… here’s the story.
Nearing the end of the spring semester in 1996 — do we sense a pattern here? — the Times published a routine, harmless news story about Virginia Tech’s success in placing students in a fellowship program. Accompanying the story was a routine, harmless “pull quote” from Sharon D. Yeagle, who worked in Tech’s Office of Student Affairs.
Only, the quote didn’t say, “Sharon Yeagle, who works in Student Affairs.”
It said, “Sharon Yeagle, Director of Butt Licking.”
How do you even write that correction?
Remarkably, the “directorship” was something of a stock phrase in the production room at the Times, which had — just a year earlier — given the “honor” to a different administrator. (With the same explanation — a place-holder that, under deadline pressure, never got replaced.) That administrator got a laugh, and an apology.
This one sued.
The case progressed all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court — where you just know seven justices were shaking their heads, “I spent three years pulling all-nighters at Yale Law School for this?”
In a 5-2 ruling, the court decided that the quote could not support a claim for libel, because no reasonable reader could interpret it as a literal accusation of deviant behavior or, more generally, of moral unfitness for employment:
In this case, the phrase ‘Director of Butt Licking’ is no more than ‘rhetorical hyperbole.’ The phrase is disgusting, offensive, and in extremely bad taste, but it cannot reasonably be understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle’s job title or her conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude.
(In the Cornell situation, the argument for libel — and, just to be clear, nobody’s made such an accusation against the Daily Sun, which is acting appropriately apologetic — would be even weaker, since the VERY BAD WORD made the professor’s title into a nonsense phrase that can’t be interpreted as suggesting anything at all about his character.)
To help steer clear of libel, you can read this handy online guide. And consider holding the next newsroom party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.