Yeagle vs Collegiate Times Defamation Case | Maggie Miller | April 13, 2016

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Yeagle vs Collegiate Times Defamation Case

by Maggie Miller Show/Hide

Sharon D. Yeagle was an assistant to the Vice President of Student Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where she “facilitated the participation of students in the 1996 Governor’s Fellowship Program.” In an article in The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, about the program, text attributing a block quote to Yeagle identified her position as “Director of Butt Licking.” Yeagle sued for defamation, arguing that the literal interpretation of the article accused her of committing an act that was illegal under Virginia’s anti-sodomy statutes and also implied that she “curries favor with others by disingenuous behavior or directs others to do so.”  

The Virginia Supreme Court confirmed the ruling of a lower court that ruled against Yeagle, arguing that the no reasonable reader could believe that “Director of Butt Licking” was in anyway an accurate reflection of Yeagle’s job or job performance and nothing more than a rhetorical device. Therefore, it can not be considered defamatory.

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  1. 1 Show/Hide More Yeagle vs Collegiate Times Primary Sources
    Original Creator: Maggie Miller

    Primary Source #1: Supreme Court of Virginia Decision:

    The Supreme Court of Virginia dismissed Yeagle’s lawsuit again the Collegiate times, with Justice Elizabeth Lacy writing the majority opinion. Lacy acknowledges that the phrase “Director of Butt Licking” is “disgusting, offensive and in extremely bad taste” but argues that it cannot be “understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle’s job title or conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude.” Lacy looks back to legal precedent that speakers/publications may use insulting or offensive language as long as it is considered no more than a “rhetorical hyperbole.”

    The dissenting opinion, written by Justices Cynthia Kinser and Lawrence Koontz, argues that Yeagle was in fact defamed, even if such defamation was indirect. While the phrase “Director of Butt Licking” does not outright claim that Yeagle curries favor with others in a disingenuous manner or committed a crime it, by The Collegiate Times’ own admission, implies as much. Kinser and Koontz argue that such defamation only needs to be implied to be held up in court, and believe that the case should have been decided by a jury.

    The link to this source: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/va-supreme-court/1042458.html 

    Primary Source #2: Amicus Curiae from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

    The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center filed a joint amoco curiae brief to the Supreme Court of Virginia in reference to Yeagle v. Collegiate Times. The first argument the brief offers is that the Supreme Court of Virginia has ruled that similarlily derogatory language directed and public officials such as “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” have been determined to not convey factual information about a person a “figurative expression” that is not meant to convey any facts, and therefore not hurtful to Yeagle’s career.

    The brief also argues that while the phrase may be offensive and personally hurtful to Yeagle, there is no precedent that would allow the state to punish speech that is both of those qualities but not defamatory. The brief compares the “Director of Butt Licking” phrase to satirical yet profane cartoons found in publications such as Hustler. It also argues that to begin prosecuting such speech would have a “chilling effect” on all free speech, and even vague yet negative terms such “jerk” could become subject to litigation.

    The final argument presented by the brief is that the Virginia constitution provides an “independent basis” for the protection of freedom of speech separate from the First Amendment.

    The link to this source is here: http://tjcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/1997-Yeagle-v.-The-Collegiate-Times.pdf 

  2. 2 Show/Hide More Yeagle vs Collegiate Times Further Information
    Original Creator: Maggie Miller

    Full RCFP Article: http://www.rcfp.org/browse-media-law-resources/digital-journalists-legal-guide/protection-satire-and-parody  

    This essay from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press discusses what kind of satirical speech is protected by the First Amendment and what kind of practices publications should avoid if they do not want to be sued for libel.

    Appalachian Journal of Law: http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/appalwj5&g_sent=1&id=45

    This article by John B. O’Keefe in the Appalachian Journal of Law discusses defamation litigation in the state of Virginia and makes many references to the Yeagle case

    Tort Litigation in Higher Education: http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/jcolunly26&g_sent=1&id=275

    This article by Edward von Geritchen discusses the Yeagle case and its implications for tort ligitation concerning institutions of higher learning.

    RCPF Article #2: http://www.rcfp.org/browse-media-law-resources/news-media-law/news-media-and-law-fall-2004/avoiding-libel-satire 

    This article from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press gives suggestions to journalists on how to avoid libel suits while writing satire, which serves as a helpful blueprint for defining what exactly libel and defamation are.

  3. 3 Show/Hide More Yeagle vs. Collegiate Times Audio/Visual Information
    Original Creator: Maggie Miller

    Video Entitled “Is Satire the Same as Defamation?” Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2Imn_kG6ro

    This student-made video provides a succinct explanation on how satire is protected from defamation claims.

    “How Do You Prove Libel and Slander” Law Video. Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xpzybcswpxw

    This video details how libel and slander are proven in a court of law.

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April 13, 2016

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Maggie Miller

American University

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