School official loses libel suit over false derogatory title
VIRGINIA–In late February the state Supreme Court held that a college administrator cannot sue a student newspaper for libel based on a reference to her as the “Director of Butt Licking.”
Sharon Yeagle, an assistant to the vice president of student affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, sued the Collegiate Times, the university’s student newspaper, after a caption beneath a block quotation attributed to Yeagle identified her by the fictitious title.
Yeagle argued that the caption could be construed as an allegation that she curried favor with others by fawning or that she engaged in a crime of moral turpitude.
The newspaper responded that the phrase was rhetorical and could not reasonably be construed as a factual allegation. The Times also maintained that the caption had been a mistake and that the article as a whole had been complimentary of Yeagle.
In an opinion written by Justice Elizabeth Lacy, the court held that Yeagle could not sue for libel because the phrase used by the Collegiate Times could not reasonably be construed as an allegation of fact.
“In this case, the phrase ‘Director of Butt Licking’ is no more than ‘rhetorical hyperbole,'” Lacy wrote. “The phrase is disgusting, offensive, and in extremely bad taste, but it cannot reasonably be understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle’s job title or her conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude.”
Justices Cynthia Kinser and Lawrence Koontz dissented, arguing that the Collegiate Times’ phrase could be construed as an implication that Yeagle “curries favors with others by disingenuous behavior such as fawning or directs others to do so.”
The state Supreme Court’s decision upheld trial court Judge Ray Grubbs’ February 1997 dismissal of Yeagle’s suit. (Yeagle v. Collegiate Times; Media Counsel: James Creekmore, Roanoke)