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On Papers, Flubs, and Liberty

Anders Hove

It will come as no surprise to most people that newspapers sometimes make mistakes, and that college newspapers sometimes make big ones.

Last year, though, the Collegiate Times made a whopper that puts all minor production errors and typos to shame. In a news article about the administration of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the Times misidentified one administrator, Sharon Yeagle, as "Director of Butt Licking." Yeagle is actually assistant to the vice president of student affairs.

The newspaper claimed that the incorrect title had run unintentionally. Perhaps it had been a newsroom joke, one that the editors planned to remove just before the paper went out the door. After all, the editors pointed out, the story itself had been complimentary of Yeagle; the incorrect title had only run in a caption.

Whatever the intention, Yeagle filed suit against the Times, alleging that she had been libeled. A reasonable person, she said, might interpret the false title as a suggestion that she had curried favor with her administrative superiors. Worse, others might come to believe she had actually engaged in sexually submissive acts.

Incidents like the one with the Times tend to confirm what many already believe about the press. Newspapers and the nightly local news often appear anxious to defame and humiliate the subjects of their reportage. Why else would local news anchors scurry around interviewing neighbors of domestic abuse victims? In such cases, what purpose does the press serve other than to violate others' privacy and act as a vehicle for defamation?

In Yeagle's case, the courts found that the newspaper's fake title was not libel - what reasonable person would conclude that the title was accurate? If bad taste does not qualify as libel, what does?

Some student publications, especially high school papers, have experimented with gossip sections filled with short and chatty contributions from students. In one Oklahoma case, a jury awarded $5,001 to a 19-year-old woman and mother of two after a a high school newspaper's "Rumors of the Year" column stated, "T.M. is pregnant again," and, "In the year 2020 maybe T.M. will finally figure out who the father of her child really is."

Undoubtedly the paper found the rumors section humorous, or perhaps even satirical. The jury apparently did not agree, nor did it agree with the paper's claim that the woman's initials did not sufficiently identify her.

Although the Oklahoma and Virginia cases seem outwardly similar - they both involved allegations that the student press defamed someone by printing salacious material - current jurisprudence places them light years apart. The Oklahoma case involved a private individual (a student) whose activities, however well known among students and teachers at the high school, were private. A university administrator, even a lowly assistant to a vice president, is a public figure - or at least is a public figure with reference to the community served by a student paper. Furthermore, her title is a public fact; when the paper spoofed the title, it was spoofing a public fact.

The other distinction is that in the Virginia case the court found that a reasonable person would not conclude that the title was factual, whereas in the Oklahoma case a reasonable person would most likely conclude that the salacious statements were true. Of course, there can be plenty of argument about whether or not a reasonable person would or would not interpret something as true.

Sadly, such distinctions and standards of conduct remain horribly fuzzy. What is humor and satire? The students in Tulsa may have found the rumors section hilarious, but it didn't qualify as satire, where as "Director of Butt Licking" did.

Of course, many college students run hack editions of the school paper containing all sorts of blatantly incorrect statements that pass as satire only because they are surrounded by other blatantly incorrect statements. Ultimately, neither papers nor their readers have solid rules about which whoppers constitute libel and which do not.