NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MINNESOTA · Libel · Oct. 27, 2006
College dean’s libel suit against school paper dismissed
Oct. 27, 2006 · A former dean of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota cannot proceed with his libel claim against the school newspaper and a former student journalist, a state court ruled Tuesday.
District Judge Bernard Boland in Stearns County said that a public figure cannot sue for defamation simply because he was not given a chance to comment personally on allegations in the article prior to publication.
The school’s newspaper, the University Chronicle, published a story in October 2003 that quoted a student as saying that former Dean Richard D. Lewis was anti-Semitic and used racial slurs. The newspaper later published a retraction and explained that the reporter misunderstood the quote.
Lewis, who was dean of St. Cloud’s College of Social Sciences from 1997 until October 2003, said that the retraction wasn’t enough. He alleged that the newspaper staffers recklessly disregarded the ethics of journalism when they failed to contact him for comment on the article.
Although Lewis himself was not asked to comment, the student reporter did seek out other faculty members for quotes to balance her story. The opinion noted that the Chronicle staff had tried to contact Lewis in the past for stories but he had either refused to comment or referred the student journalists to his lawyer on those occasions.
Boland found that Lewis was a public figure in his capacity as dean. In order to prove defamation, public figures must show that the defendants published the statement in question either knowing it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
According to the opinion, Lewis’s claim was “centered on his allegations that the newspaper … failed to afford [him] the opportunity to rebut” the allegations before the article was published.
Boland found that this didn’t rise to the level of “reckless disregard” and added that public figures shouldn’t gain the right to sue for libel “by merely choosing to make themselves unavailable for comment.”
(Lewis v. University Chronicle; Media Counsel: Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis) — ES