September 17, 2002

Words Like Swords: Defamation Claims at Colleges and Universities

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Paul G. Lannon

Colleges and universities provide fertile soil for defamation claims.  The very principles and institutions designed to cultivate freedom of thought and expression can also give rise to claims of libel and slander.  The scenarios seem endless:  a faculty member criticizes another faculty member in a scholarly publication; a student criticizes a faculty member in a student journal or newspaper; a faculty member criticizes a student or a class of students at a lecture; an administrator criticizes a faculty member during tenure proceedings; an administrator publishes critical remarks about a student in connection with disciplinary proceedings, and so on.  Two Massachusetts cases, involving very different circumstances, illustrate how defamation claims can arise in academic communities and how the members of those communities can defend themselves. 

Qualified Privilege Defense

In McCracken v. Gordon College, a Massachusetts Superior Court case, a varsity coach sued the college and its president for defamation after the college terminated the coach’s employment.  The coach was informed that a restructuring of the athletic program led to his discharge.  The college subsequently received several letters from alumni inquiring about the coach’s termination and threatening to withhold further contributions to the college.  The coach claimed that the college defamed him in its responses to these alumni letters by permitting the innuendo that he had been discharged for cause. 

The Court awarded summary judgment to the college on the grounds that its statements to alumni were privileged, citing Goldhor v. New Hampshire College, 25 Mass. App. Ct. 716 (1988).  In Goldhor, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that academic institutions possess a conditional privilege to publish statements concerning employment actions.  To maintain the privilege, publication must be limited; it must further a legitimate business interest, and it cannot be made with malicious intent.  In the Gordon College case, it was critical to the college’s victory that the allegedly defamatory statements were published in connection with legitimate fundraising and alumni support concerns, and only to those alumni who specifically inquired about the employment action.

Substantial Truth Defense

In Martin v. Roy , 54 Mass. App. Ct. 642 (2002), a Wellesley College professor sued an MIT student, claiming that the student’s article in an undergraduate publication defamed the professor by asserting that he had received tenure only after successfully suing Wellesley College for racial discrimination.  Even though the article was admittedly inaccurate in some respects, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant student, and the Appeals Court affirmed.  The court reasoned that the allegedly defamatory statements, when viewed in the context of the article as a whole, were “substantially true” and therefore not defamatory.  The professor had, in fact, sued the college, and that fact supported the student’s conclusion that the college, out of fear of being sued, was restrained in its reaction to an incident involving the professor and an undergraduate student.

Absence of Malice

Public figures have an even harder time pursuing defamation actions.  Because the First Amendment provides such strong protection for speech involving matters of public interest, public figures must prove that the false statements were published with actual malice or with reckless disregard for the truth. 

Teachers and professors can be deemed public figures.  In Martin v. Roy, the court ruled that the professor was a public figure because his scholarship, teaching methods and qualifications had become part of a public controversy and because the professor had injected himself into the controversy through his public lectures and writings.  The court also found that the professor had stipulated to being a public figure, and that the stipulation was binding.  Thus, the professor was required to prove that the student journalist acted with actual malice or recklessness.  He could not meet that elevated standard.  The student produced uncontradicted evidence that he genuinely believed his confidential source of information as to the timing of the lawsuit and the professor’s tenure decision. 

Lessons Learned

These cases demonstrate that defamation claims can arise in a wide variety of circumstances at colleges and universities.  The cases also provide important guidance on what can be done to avoid defamation claims.  First, academic institutions must insist that their students, faculty and administrators diligently check all publications for truth and accuracy.  Substantial truth, as shown above, is an absolute defense to a defamation claim.  Demanding truth and accuracy also nurtures a spirit of trust and credibility within the academic community.  Secondly, academic institutions must educate their community members about defamation.  Everyone should know that it is generally illegal to publish false statements, or statements that permit a false innuendo and that would discredit or ridicule someone in front of a considerable and respectable part of the community.  Professors, in particular, should be aware that they might be deemed public figures and thereby be required to prove malice.  Students should be aware that they too could be held liable for defamation, especially if they acted with malicious intent or with reckless disregard for the truth of their statements.  Administrators should be warned to craft carefully every notice of an employment action and to limit publication of such notices only to those members of the community with a legitimate need for the information. 

These lessons and guidelines are by no means exhaustive on the matter of defamation actions at colleges and universities.

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