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Court upholds $3 million judgment against former university student

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NORTH DAKOTA         Libel    

Court upholds $3 million judgment against former university student

  • Court dismisses defendant’s claim that North Dakota courts do not have jurisdiction over her Internet postings.

May 23, 2003 — The North Dakota Supreme Court May 6 affirmed a $3 million libel judgment against former University of North Dakota student Glenda Miskin, dismissing her argument that North Dakota courts did not have jurisdiction to hear a dispute over her Internet postings.

University of North Dakota physics Professor John Wagner sued Miskin in June 2000, alleging, among other things, that she had made defamatory statements about him on campus and on her Web site.

Miskin, who now resides in Minnesota, maintains a Web site, which she describes in court papers as “a full spectrum [online] newspaper whose focus is to criticize publicly the [North Dakota] area and to warn others from making the mistake of coming to a rural enclave that is run with an ol’ boy mentality and whose laws and biased attitudes predate the 1950’s.”

Miskin’s Web site contains links with statements about Wagner and other university staff members.

The lawsuit followed Miskin’s suspension from the school in 1999 for harassing Wagner and using the university’s email system to pass sexually explicit messages to the professor.

In April 2002, a jury found Miskin had libeled and slandered Wagner and intentionally interfered with his business relationships. Wagner was awarded $3 million in damages.

Both Wagner and Miskin represented themselves on appeal.

Miskin argued before the North Dakota Supreme Court that North Dakota courts “have no jurisdiction over the Internet.”

The high court, which had not yet confronted the issue of Internet jurisdiction, said Miskin failed to present a clear enough record of the lower court proceedings for the court to be able to adopt a legal test for establishing jurisdiction in Internet libel cases.

Nevertheless, the court said it was clear in this case that jurisdiction was proper. Citing recent federal decisions on the issue of Internet jurisdiction, the court said the set of facts before it “clearly contradicts Miskin’s assertion that her Internet communications were ‘not directed uniquely toward the State of North Dakota.'”

The URL of Miskin’s Web site is “www.undnews.com,” and articles linked to her homepage relate almost exclusively to the University of North Dakota and its staff.

Moreover, some of the statements at issue were made before Miskin left North Dakota and established the Web site.

“We conclude from the record available to us that Miskin did particularly and directly target North Dakota with her website, specifically North Dakota resident John Wagner,” the court wrote.

The court also dismissed Miskin’s claim that statements made in university disciplinary proceedings should be afforded a privilege making them ineligible to be the basis of a libel suit.

“A privileged statement, such as one made in a judicial proceeding, is not privileged for all subsequent publications by virtue of initially being spoken in a privileged proceeding,” the court wrote. “Miskin seems to assert that once a statement is made in a setting in which it may be privileged, she is free to repeat it at will in other situations.”

Even if some of Miskin’s statements could be privileged, the court said, she had waived the privilege in earlier motions by asking that all evidence from the university hearing be presented to the court.

Miskin wants the North Dakota Supreme Court to rehear her appeal. In papers requesting rehearing, Miskin characterizes herself as a whistleblower who has been persecuted for exposing problems at the university.

(Miskin v. Wagner) WT

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