Student Paper Sued Over Title
Jan. 08, 1998
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Sharon Yeagle is the assistant to the vice president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, and she was not amused when the student newspaper identified her in a crude way as someone who shamelessly curries favor.
On Thursday, she asked Virginia's highest court to let her revive an $850,000 defamation suit against the Collegiate Times. A lower court previously dismissed the case.
The case stemmed from an April 1996 article in the student-edited paper about the university sending students to a state honors program. The text of the story gave Ms. Yeagle's correct title, but a quotation that was lifted out and set in large, boldface type identified her as the school's ``Director of Butt-Licking.''
The editors said the title got into the paper by accident.
Lynn Nystrom, the paper's faculty adviser, said the Collegiate Times staff used a computer template for setting up boldface quotes with a phony title so absurd that no one could forget to amend it. But in the late-night rush to publish, everyone forgot, Ms. Nystrom said.
Newspaper editors sent a letter of apology the next day. But Ms. Yeagle, who declined to comment Thursday, sued anyway.
She said in court papers that the article contained ``false and defamatory statements'' that charged her with ``the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude.''
Last March, Circuit Judge Ray W. Grubbs said no reasonable person would believe that was her real title, and he dismissed the suit. Ms. Yeagle appealed to the state Supreme Court.
On Thursday, Yeagle attorney Leisa Ciaffone told the high court that the Collegiate Times story is defamatory because the phrase carries a specific, factual meaning.
``It means she suffers from a wont of integrity. That's what that means,'' Ms. Ciaffone said. ``It means she's there (in her university post) because she kisses up.''
James R. Creekmore, attorney for the paper, disagreed, saying outrageous opinion statements like the one involved are covered by free speech law because they lack factual content.
The phrase ``doesn't say anything about her skills in her job,'' Creekmore said. ``The phrase is so fanciful and so figurative that it cannot be asserted as a representation of fact.''
After the arguments, Ms. Ciaffone told reporters the use of the phrase may have been accidental, but that doesn't matter under the law.
``The laws of the state protect people from negligent acts,'' she said. ``Sharon Yeagle is not somebody who can call a press conference and say, `No, none of this is true.' Her only means of redress is to do what she's done in this case.''
The Supreme Court is expected to take several months to decide.