Student Editor Sued for Stories Published Two Years Before She Started (Sigh)

The editor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student newspaper is being sued for stories published roughly two years before she took over. According to one report, the incident shines a spotlight on “the largely unrecognized legal liability that college journalists face and the strange relationships between colleges and their student newspapers.”

Ready? Let us journey back to 2011, when “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” ruled the box office and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” topped the Billboard charts. On the UW-Whitewater campus, it was also allegedly a time of in-fighting and even some threats.

During that year, The Royal Purple student paper reported along with other outlets on a computer science professor’s rift with his UW-Whitewater colleagues and his eventual firing and banning from campus.  Yikes.  As The Janesville Gazette confirms, the Purple’s breakdown of the saga was all based on court documents.

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Predictably, the professor was unhappy with the termination-ban and took a stand by suing the university. He then filed a separate defamation lawsuit in May against the student paper “alleging the Royal Purple’s inaccurate articles harmed him in 2011.”

Hmm. But then comes the odd part. The suit specifically names current Royal Purple editor-in-chief Andrea Behling. To confirm, Behling had nothing to do with the Purple’s reporting on the professor’s two-year-old mess.

So why is she being targeted? The prof: “I have to name the current top officer as the entity for my litigation.”

Upon learning of the suit during finals week last spring, Behling admits “a lot of tears” followed — amid an eye-opening set of complexities. The toughest: the university-student paper relationship. According to the Gazette, “The university provides offices and pays utilities for the paper. It provides an adviser, covers the paper’s printing costs and handles the paper’s accounts. … But the university is not the paper’s publisher.”

This is of course a good thing, ensuring the paper’s editorial independence. But it does mean that in times of trouble like what Behling is currently facing, the school does not step in to provide legal representation or cover legal fees. To their credit, UW-Whitewater officials did gamely play matchmaker between Behling and a local lawyer.

This summer, the judge dismissed the suit, but the determined former professor has appealed.

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Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte: “At end of the day, I think that she’ll quite clearly be able to escape personal liability because she had no connection to the defamatory statements. … But, unfortunately, she’s going to have to go through the motions of fighting it in court to prove that.”

Legal fights aside, the issue is also rife with ethical entanglements. One biggie is how much influence sheer fear (of a lawsuit or a story subject’s ire) should play in the editorial decision-making process. For the Royal Purple, at the moment, according to Behling, “We’re almost trying to avoid any possible situation that would have an outcome that would anger someone.”

Hmm.

I have to name the current top officer as the entity for my litigation,” Shi said in an email, and Behling happened to be the editor at the time he filed his suit. – See more at: http://gazettextra.com/article/20131110/ARTICLES/131109796#sthash.Zc2loQr8.dpufStudent Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte: “At end of the day, I think that she’ll quite clearly be able to escape personal liability because she had no connection to the defamatory statements. … But, unfortunately, she’s going to have to go through the motions of fighting it in court to prove that.”The issue is rife with ethical entanglements. One biggie is how much influence sheer fear (of a lawsuit or a story subject’s anger) should play in the editorial decision-making process. For the Royal Purple, at the moment, according to Behling, “We’re almost trying to avoid any possible situation that would have an outcome that would anger someone.”Hmm.

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alleging the Royal Purple’s inaccurate articles harmed him in 2011 – See more at: http://gazettextra.com/article/20131110/ARTICLES/131109796#sthash.Zc2loQr8.dpuf
Comments
One Response to “Student Editor Sued for Stories Published Two Years Before She Started (Sigh)”
  1. Geoff Lister says:

    Stand strong there, and hopefully someone will pick up the legal fees.

    But is there no libel insurance here? We pay something like 10,000 dollars to cover ourselves. We’ve been sued twice in the last eighteen years (and cleanly won both). It’s hard to argue with a million dollar war chest.