June 16, 2008

Libel, The Chronicle, and The Sun

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Burnt by hot coffee? Don’t like what someone else what wrote about you? In America, we deal with these kinds of problems by sueing the pants off of the other party. However, while one woman sucessfully sued McDonalds because her coffee was too hot, a Cornell alumnus unsuccesfully sued Cornell University and its publication, the Cornell Chronicle, because it published an unflattering article about him.

For those who do not know what happened, alumnus Kevin Vanginderen ’83 was charged with burglary as a college student, and The Cornell Chronicle wrote an article about the incident. Several decades later, when the Chronicle made its archives available online, this information became even more accessible via Google, and Vanginderen’s legal career went into a tailspin. He subsequently sued Cornell for libel.

When I first read about this back in January, my first impression was that this essentially amounted to a junk lawsuit. Basically, Vanginderen had his career derailed by some unpleasant but true news about him that found its way on Google. Since he had no chance of rewriting history by expunging these crimes from his record, he had to resort to the next best option: sueing anyone who reported about his crimes. Basically, he wanted to circumvent the First Amendment, sending a chilling message to journalists.

Now given the situation, one would think that The Sun would (grudgingly) rally in support of the Cornell Chronicle. Granted, the Chronicle is controlled by the University and essentially publishes a weekly press release for Cornell as compared with an actual newspaper, but that did not change the fact that Vanginderen was still trying to circumvent the First Amendment. Journalists should be in the business of protecting the First Amendment. Even if it means allying with the Cornell Chronicle.

However, The Sun did the exact opposite. While it did not write an editorial on the matter, in its weekly edition of Heroes and Villains, it labeled the Cornell Chronicle as the villain while “heroically” giving aid and comfort to the enemy of the First Amendment.

Luckily, though, The Sun was not the judge in the lawsuit. The actual judge, Moskowitz, dismissed the lawsuit. He suggested that although the article may have been poorly written (this is the Cornell Chronicle), it essentially was true. Additionally, he forced Vanginderen to pay Cornell’s attorney fees under an anti-SLAPP statue. For those who do not know what anti-SLAPP means, here is a quick summary of what it tries to stop. Person A writes something about Person B. Person B does not like what Person A wrote. Person B files a junk lawsuit against Person A. Persons C, D, E, and so on are now afraid to speak freely about Person B. The first amendment suffers the worst of it.

As you can tell, I by no means am a fan of the Cornell Weekly Press Release (also known as the Cornell Chronicle). Nonetheless, I recognize that no matter how bad the Chronicle is, some things are even worse. When the First Amendment is under attack, The Sun should defend it, no matter which publicaton it involves.

Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be reached at mwacker@cornellsun.com.