The Student Press Law Center joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 16 other media companies and press advocacy groups in filing a brief urging the Ohio State Supreme Court to hear an appeal in Gibson Bros. Inc. v. Oberlin College. In March, an Ohio appellate court held the private college liable for statements made by its students who were protesting a local bakery the students claimed had engaged in racist conduct.
While the case does not directly involve student media, the potential implications of the appellate court decision for student media — particularly at private schools — are significant. There are a number of pieces to the case that the parties will tackle with respect to the defamation claims, but the SPLC’s interest is focused on the issue of liability. Among other things, the appeals court found that Oberlin College was liable for statements made by OC students in various contexts. Probably most troubling for student media was that the court held the college liable for a resolution condemning the bakery passed by the school’s student government. The court found Oberlin College liable because the school provided financial and other support, including a faculty adviser, to the the student government.
Obviously the leap between holding a private school liable for a student government resolution and holding it liable for an article published by its student-edited media — many/most of whom also receive support from their schools — is tiny/non-existent and raises significant concerns. While there are several court cases on the books shielding public colleges from liability for their student-edited media, the issue has never been completely resolved for student media at private schools.
A decision by the Ohio Supreme Court about whether to take the case is expected later this year.