Educators speak up for professor fighting defamation claim

Thursday, April 2, 1998

A defamation claim filed by the nation's largest nursing home company against a university professor could determine the fate of academic freedom and professorial research, say academics across the nation.

Beverly Enterprises Inc., is suing Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University, in federal court for $225,000 for oral and written statements she made at a town hall meeting held in Pittsburgh last May. The company also seeks access to the professor's research on union activities.

Called by various members of Congress, the town hall meeting at Allegheny County Courthouse featured testimony from several speakers about a federal bill known as the Federal Procurement and Assistance Integrity Act.

In its complaint filed in February, Beverly alleges that “the true purpose of this 'town hall' meeting was to provide a forum designed solely to attack Beverly and assist the [Service Employees International Union] in its campaign to cause economic harm to Beverly and its nursing homes in Pennsylvania.”

Beverly contends Bronfenbrenner made several defamatory comments, including the following statement: “Ten years later, despite being subjected to repeated [National Labor Relations Board] complaints for egregious and widespread violations of the National Labor Relations Act, we still find Beverly Enterprises to be one of the nation's most notorious labor law violators.”

Donald Dotson, Beverly's senior vice president for labor and employment, told The New York Times that Bronfenbrenner's remarks “were based on many gross errors concerning Beverly, which should not have been the case if rigorous research had really been conducted. … It's not our harm our desire to destroy anyone or harm anyone. If we could arrive at some accommodation to set this situation right and to set the record straight, that's all we're looking for. We just want the truth.”

However, academics decry the lawsuit as an assault on academic freedom. The New York Times reports more than 500 professors sent an e-mail petition to the company, saying the suit “was intended to send a warning to Dr. Bronfenbrenner and to other academics not to engage in honest inquiry into topics a powerful corporation finds unpleasant.”

Bronfenbrenner told the paper: “I'm very frightened and outraged by this, because it represents a real attack on scholars like myself from taking part in public debates.”

Officials at the American Association of University Professors agree that the lawsuit threatens academic freedom and free-speech rights of professors.

Jonathan Knight, associate secretary for the association, said: “As far we know, this is the first case in which a corporation has sued a faculty member for defamation. This case and the discovery requests filed by Beverly combine to form a very serious threat to academic freedom.”

Knight says that “the importance of this case for academic freedom lies in the fact that there are literally thousands of faculty members who do research on current social, political and economic issues of critical importance. If this lawsuit stands, professors will fear speaking out on these issues; the chilling effect is palpable.

“Professors often delve into areas in their research which can rankle the feathers of powerful corporations. Academics like Dr. Bronfenbrenner should be free to speak about their research in any public fora without fear of lawsuits filed by corporations with deep pockets,” he said.

Knight says that another possible defense for Dr. Bronfenbrenner is a legislative privilege defense, which shields an individual from defamation liability for comments made during the legislative process.

He said that a federal court recently dismissed another lawsuit brought by Beverly Enterprises, Inc., against a local union official, who also spoke out against Beverly at the town hall meeting and who used a legislative privilege defense.

However, Beverly Enterprises in their complaint states that “Bronfenbrenner's statements are not protected by any legislative privilege because they were not made during the course of an official congressional hearing, nor were the communications preliminary to an actual or seriously contemplated legislative proceeding.”