Defamation suit against prof for Web-site criticism dismissed

Thursday, May 22, 2003

MONROE, La. — A university professor had the right to criticize school officials on matters of public interest, a Louisiana appeals court has ruled in dismissing a defamation lawsuit.

Louisiana's 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with John Scott, a former University of Louisiana at Monroe economics professor who argued that the defamation lawsuit against his Web site should be dismissed under a state law designed to stop lawsuits that target legitimate free-speech and free-petition activities on matters of public interest.

The decision is a blow to Richard Baxter, former vice president for external affairs at ULM, who sued Scott over the now-defunct Baxter claimed Scott defamed him on the Web site.

Baxter sought damages because of alleged injury to his reputation, loss of career advancement and loss of business opportunity, he claimed in the suit.

Because Scott's Web site concerned the operation of a public institution, it was a constitutionally protected form of free speech, the appellate panel said in its May 16 opinion in Baxter v. Scott.

The court found that Baxter could not proceed with his lawsuit because of Louisiana's anti-SLAPP — or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — law. The law seeks to protect First Amendment freedoms by allowing courts to weed out lawsuits designed to chill public participation on matters of public significance.

“We believe that publishing statements relating to matters of public interest on a website is an exercise of one’s constitutional right of free speech,” the court wrote.

Baxter, who stepped down as vice president last summer to return as a professor in mass communications, couldn't be reached for comment. Scott, who now teaches at an Arkansas university, also couldn't be reached for comment.

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