Libel Suit over Digitized Article Dismissed

Libel Suit over Digitized Article Dismissed

A federal judge has dismissed a $1-million lawsuit filed by a Cornell University alumnus who claimed that the school libeled him in a 1983 Cornell Chronicle article reporting that he had been charged with third-degree burglary when he was a student. Back issues of the Chronicle, a newspaper published by the university’s press office, are being digitized by the campus library.

Kevin Vanginderen, now a California lawyer, found the article through a Google search, the Chronicle reported June 9. After the school refused his request to remove the story, Vanginderen filed a suit claiming that the report was false and that its distribution on the internet caused “loss of reputation” and “mental anguish.” He argued that making the article available on the internet constituted republication, thus overriding the statute of limitations for filing charges.

However, Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted the university’s motion for dismissal June 3 under the state’s “anti-SLAPP” statute barring “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” Moskowitz noted that “the article . . . concerns a matter of public interest,” and that “the truthful reporting of information in public official records regarding criminal proceedings against an individual [is] protected by the First Amendment regardless of whether the reporting is concurrent with the criminal proceedings or years later.”

“I feel that this is a real victory for the library in terms of being able to make documentary material accessible,” said University Librarian Anne Kenney. “I do share concerns that individuals might have about potentially embarrassing material being made accessible via the internet, but I don’t think you can go back and distort the public record.”

Moskowitz did not address the question of whether making older information available online constitutes republication. “It would be disastrous if every time we scan something, we had to take the same editorial responsibility as the initial publisher,” Cornell Library Archivist Peter Hirtle told the Chronicle. “It reaffirms the important role libraries can play in promoting free speech and providing ready public access to information on the activities of government.”

A second suit filed by Vanginderen, for $10 million, remains pending. In it, he claims that by submitting the original report and evidence of his arrest in open court, Cornell once again republished the information.

Posted on June 13, 2008. Discuss.