Monday, September 17, 2018

'Have You Seen This Man?': Student newspaper editor on libel hook for campus crime coverage

A suit for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) may proceed against the former editor of the college newspaper at UMass Boston (UMB) since the Massachusetts Appeals Court reversed summary judgment for the defendant today.  The case, Butcher v. University of Massachusetts, No. 17-P-161 (Mass. Ct. App. Sept. 17, 2018), raises a buffet of compelling issues for the media law buff, to say nothing of the specter of student journalism's uneasy relationship with public university oversight.

The facts are complicated and controverted.  Plaintiff Butcher worked in IT at UMB and took pictures with his cellphone while on a university shuttle bus.  The bus driver accused him of taking pictures of women on the bus; Butcher maintains that he was taking pictures of buses and structures.  After a verbal confrontation, the bus driver and Butcher took pictures of each other.  The driver sent pictures of Butcher to UMB police.  Butcher, using a pseudonym to protect his privacy, he asserted, complained about the bus driver to UMB public safety.

The student newspaper published an item from the police blotter based on the bus driver's report.  That item recounted that "[a] suspicious white male in a black jacket took photographs and video of nearby women, as well as some buildings on campus."  Soon thereafter, the newspaper published in print and online an additional report with the pictures of Butcher and the headline, "Have You Seen This Man?"  The latter report stated that "the man in the photograph allegedly walked around the UMass Boston campus snapping pictures of female members of the university community without their permission."  The gravamen of Butcher's complaint arises from the suggestion that he is some kind of sexual predator.  The newspaper moreover erred in stating that Butcher was reported by a student rather than by a bus driver, and that Butcher took pictures "around ... campus" rather than on the bus.

Identification followed from the newspaper publication of the photographs.  Campus detectives interviewed Butcher and took his university-issued phone over his objection.  Inspection of the phone revealed only the bus and structure photos Butcher had said he took.

Butcher complained of extreme social and professional alienation as a result of the newspaper publications.  He alleged exclusion from important projects at work, "fear and loathing" in stares on campus, and harassment by bus drivers compelling him to walk rather than take the shuttle.

The superior court dismissed claims against UMass on grounds of sovereign immunity and awarded summary judgment on the merits to former student newspaper editor Cady Vishniac.  See her compelling UMass Boston alumna testimonial at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.  The Appeals Court reversed as to Vishniac.  Here comes the buffet:

The substantial truth doctrine protected the newspaper on the small stuff.  The appeals court agreed with the lower court that defamation did not arise in the newspaper's plain errors--whether a student or a bus driver reported to police, and where the pictures were taken--because the gist or sting of the erroneous reporting was substantially the same as had the report contained the truth.  I think "around campus" sounds worse than on a bus, but OK, tomato, tomato.

The fair report privilege did not protect the newspaper's recitation of a witness statement to police.  Consistently with state high court precedent, the Appeals Court held that the fair report privilege--which gives journalists latitude to restate even defamatory falsehoods reported in official records, lest the public not be able to ascertain the use of erroneous information to support official action--is not triggered until there is an official police action, such as an arrest.  Because Butcher was not arrested--indeed, because there was no evidence to support an arrest--the fair report privilege never kicked in.  On the one hand, this is a logical construction of the privilege, as without an arrest, the risk of circulating defamatory falsehood outweighs the risk secreting falsehood as a basis of official action. On the other hand, this is a big heads up to editors--from high schools to pros--who mindlessly reprint the police blotter: the allegations of witnesses are as good as direct quotes and need to be fact checked as such.  The common law maxim rings true: the tale bearer is as responsible as the tale maker.

Actual damages include general damages, and reputational injury renders general damages.  Hear me now, believe me later, I say when I teach Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.: a limitation to actual damages does not mean only special damages!  Massachusetts law allows defamation to stand only on, and afford recovery only for, actual damages.  The defense here seems to have argued that that rule would preclude Butcher's recovery for want of demonstrable economic loss.  The court observed that Butcher moved on to another job that pays better, though had to forgo his pension plan, so economic loss is not a gimme.  No matter.  Butcher's alleged marginalization at work and social alienation on campus amply support his claim of reputational injury, and that's an actual damage with mental anguish as consequence, notwithstanding proof of economic loss.  General damages for reputation can be substantial in the eyes of jurors, especially jurors who have a distaste for mass media defendants.

Outrageous!  Like other states, Massachusetts allows IIED to proceed only upon conduct that would cause an ordinary person to proclaim, "Outrageous!"--i.e., as the Second Restatement put it, "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."  Does "Have You Seen This Man?" fit the bill?  Well, maybe: when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the party not moving for summary judgment, "as we must" according to the rules of civil procedure, the Appeals Court recalled.  I agree.  A colleague once told me that there are two allegations that destroy a person's reputation virtually beyond repair, even if proved untrue: child molester and racist.  In the #MeToo era, there might be a third.  However much those allegations might masquerade as "opinion" or mere suspicion, they have the force of factual declaration and are socially, if not also economically, fatal.

A subtext in the case is the problem of student journalism's editorial independence at a public university.  For purposes of the litigation to date, Vishniac was represented along with UMB by university counsel.  Will that representation continue now that the university has been dismissed?  Were the university's and Vishniac's interests always interchangeable anyway?  Is UMass Boston prepared to indemnify Vishniac?  Certainly I empathize with Vishniac.  One does not become a college newspaper editor and figure on having to take out libel insurance--whether for me at 20 years old or for Vishniac as a non-traditional student juggling family and educational opportunity.  But media at public universities have long asserted editorial independence by arguing, logically, that a heavy hand in university editorial control, prior review, or censorship would invite litigation against the university--so hands off!  If the university is on the hook either way, it's much more likely to heed demons' whispers when student journalists come 'round trying to follow the money.  And it's not like UMass Boston and money problems haven't met.

Finally, let's not be too quick to the ramparts in defense of journalism here, nor to rally the troops to #MeToo battle.  Notwithstanding the issue of whether the the newspaper reports implicated sexual-predator-like conduct, falsely, it seems to me that the newspaper has a bigger problem if even the bus driver witness only accused Butcher of "snapping pictures of female members of the university community without their permission."  Despite all efforts at making that seem creepy--the newspaper characterizing Butcher as "suspicious" and the bus driver claiming that Butcher hid his face when confronted--it happens that taking pictures of people in public places is legal in America.  It's true.  I checked.  No permission required.  Men or women, no matter.  Some might even call it art.  Europe a different story, long story, but different.  There are narrow exceptions, but they don't seem to be in play here.  I would like to learn that the police's first reaction to the bus driver's complaint was, "Sorry, you said 'suspicious'; could you say a little more about that?"

With remand to superior court, this ain't over.  Happy Constitution Day!

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