Court refuses to revive defamation suit against student newspaper

Tuesday, March 3, 1998

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Though the term “Director of Butt-Licking” is “disgusting, offensive, and in extremely bad taste,” it is not defamatory, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

In a 7-2 ruling Friday, the court upheld the dismissal of Virginia Tech administrator Sharon Yeagle’s $850,000 defamation suit against the school newspaper, the Collegiate Times. The court said the offending phrase could not be taken literally.

“The phrase is disgusting, offensive, and in extremely bad taste, but it cannot reasonably be understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle’s job title or her conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude,” Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy wrote in the majority opinion.

Yeagle declined to comment on the ruling. Her lawyer, Leisa Ciaffone, said her client was disappointed in the ruling, “although we take some satisfaction that two of the justices agreed with our position.”

Yeagle is considering appealing the case, Ciaffone said.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Cynthia Kinser wrote that the phrase was defamatory because it implies that Yeagle engaged in “disingenuous behavior” to curry favors with others.

“The phrase is a factual assertion regarding Yeagle’s job performance and imputes to her an unfitness to perform the duties of her job or lack of integrity in the performance of such duties,” she wrote in the dissent, which was joined by Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr.

The case stemmed from an April 1996 article about the university sending students to a state honors program. A quote from Yeagle in the text gave her correct title: assistant to the vice president for student affairs. But a display quote, set in large type, identified her with the other phrase.

The editors said the unflattering title was used by accident.

Lynn Nystrom, the paper’s faculty adviser, said the Collegiate Times staff used a generic computer template for its boldface display 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, Nystrom said.

Newspaper editors sent a letter of apology the next day. But Yeagle sued, claiming the article contained “false and defamatory statements” that charged her with committing “a crime involving moral turpitude.”

James R. Creekmore, attorney for the newspaper, said it marks the state Supreme Court’s first recognition that “rhetorical hyperbole” does not amount to libel.

He said rhetorical hyperbole is “colorful or figurative-type speech that uses words that may have a literal meaning, but when taken in context do not express that literal meaning.”

In March 1997, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ray W. Grubbs threw out the lawsuit. He said no reasonable person would believe the title the newspaper gave her was accurate. The Supreme Court agreed.

Robert M. O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said the ruling means “certain offensive or obnoxious statements may give us trouble and be painful, but they’re not libelous.”

Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, agreed. She said the expression protected by the ruling is akin to that of editorial cartoonists or “people engaged in political argument.”

O’Neil said there is no danger the Supreme Court’s decision will encourage careless editing.

“This is a relatively unusual situation,” he said. “It happened because of an innocent mistake on the part of the student editors, who undoubtedly would be much more careful regardless of the outcome of the case.”