Professor loses libel suit over label as ‘crank’
ILLINOIS–A professor who denounced an engineer as a “crank” for trying to disprove a mathematical theory could not be sued for libel because the word “crank” is not defamatory when it refers to a person’s ideas, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) unanimously held in late January. The court denied review of its decision in mid-March.
“To call a person a crank is basically just a colorful and insulting way of expressing disagreement with his master idea, and it therefore belongs to the language of controversy rather than to the language of defamation,” the court stated. However, the court did not rule that “crank” could never be applied in a defamatory manner.
In a book published in 1992 titled “Mathematical Cranks,” Underwood Dudley, a mathematics professor at DePauw University, criticized William Dilworth’s 1974 article that attempts to debunk “Cantor’s diagonal process.”
“His article reads as if it is by someone convinced, whose mind is not going to be changed by anything,” Dudley wrote. “It is, in two words, a crank…”.
In late January 1995, Dilworth sued Dudley in the federal District Court in Madison, arguing that Dudley intentionally ignored certain arguments in Dilworth’s article and that being called “a crank” will make it difficult for Dilworth to publish again in the future. The District Court dismissed the case in late April 1995, finding that “crank” was “rhetorical hyperbole” and not defamatory.
The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, finding that Dudley used the word “crank” to attack Dilworth’s ideas, not his character.
The court also found that although Dilworth was an “obscure engineer,” he was a public figure because of his published articles. “If Dilworth publishes an article saying that Cantor was wrong, he invites Dudley to publish a book in which he says that Dilworth was wrong in saying that Cantor was wrong,” the court explained. (Dilworth v. Dudley; Defendant’s Counsel: Arthur Vlasak, Milwaukee)