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Court reinstates professor's libel suit against Ohio University

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  1. Libel and Privacy
An Ohio appeals court reinstated a defamation lawsuit against Ohio University, holding that a professor who sued the university after…

An Ohio appeals court reinstated a defamation lawsuit against Ohio University, holding that a professor who sued the university after it released an investigation of plagiarism that implicated him could continue his case.

In Mehta v. Ohio University, an Ohio University professor sued the university after it released the results of an external investigation into a plagiarism scandal in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The investigation, conducted by a two-person committee hired by the university’s provost, looked into theses written by graduate students.

The investigation found that “rampant and flagrant plagiarism has occurred in the graduate program of the [department] for over twenty years,” and that “the vast majority of the cases revolve around three faculty members who either failed to monitor the writing in their advisees theses or simply ignored academic honesty, integrity and basically supported academic fraudulence.”

Bhavin Mehta, an associate professor, was not named in the report that followed the investigation, but the report recommended that the university fire the “Group II faculty member who had the second highest incidences of plagiarism.” Mehta was the only Group II faculty member in the department at the time, so he was easily identifiable.

A report detailing the investigation was released to the media, which had been following the case closely. Mehta denied the allegations that he was complicit in student plagiarism and sued the university for defamation.

Earlier this month, Ohio’s Tenth Appellate District overruled the decision that the trial court made to dismiss the case because the alleged defamatory statements in the report constituted constitutionally protected opinion. After reviewing the specific statements made, the verifiability of the statements and the broader context of the statements, the appellate court said the statements made were factual statements.

“It is reasonable to assume that a university’s issuance of a press release in response to allegations of plagiarism would not be taken lightly” by a reader, the court said. “It is equally assumable that such a release would be carefully and deliberately crafted, rather than hastily thrown together. Finally, it is reasonable to assume that a university would refrain from issuing unfounded accusations and conclusions. We believe that all of these considerations would signify to the reasonable reader that what is being conveyed in the statements is factual.”

The court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the statements, which the court said are on a matter of public concern, were made with the knowledge of or reckless disregard for the falsity, which a plaintiff is required to show in a defamation suit dealing issues of public concern.