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LegalGround >> Libel in a high school yearbook


5/24/11 9:40 AM
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TheDigitalRuler
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Does anybody happen to have experience with defamation issues arising from yearbooks or other student publications? Looking for any opinions or insight based on the following hypothetical:

A student unfortunately finds himself the subject of a false rumor that has spread among his classmates. The school is aware of this rumor, and aware that it is untrue. (It's a private school, in case that matters.) The school makes at least a token effort to reprimand the students spreading the rumor, but when this effort was unsuccessful, the school essentially does nothing further on the matter. The student is relentlessly bullied and harassed with this rumor to the point that he's forced to change schools and undergo therapy.

Fast forward two years - the student is graduating from another local high school, when a friend shows him the yearbook from his old school. The student is shocked to find that the yearbook from the school he no longer attends has printed the rumor as if it were a fact. There's no subtlety about it, either; the book clearly identifies the student by first and last name and the accusation is stated in plain and unambiguous terms.

To me, this seems like a textbook case of defamation. And while I'm sure there are interesting discussions to be had in regard to legal issues such as malice, who's responsible as a publisher of the statement, etc., I'm more interested in the practical question of what you would advise the student and his family to do in this situation.

He can demand a retraction, but there's no way that a high school would ever be able to effectively recall all of its yearbooks after they've been distributed, so the statement is going to be out there no matter what anybody does at this point. Litigation is obviously an option, but then you have to worry about the side effect of calling even more attention to the statement that you didn't want published in the first place.

Any other thoughts as to what other relief the kid in my hypothetical should look for?
5/24/11 10:14 AM
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Is it a defamatory rumor?
5/24/11 10:22 AM
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TheDigitalRuler
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^ Yes. Aside from being factually untrue, the rumor deals with embarrassing subject matter and entails an accusation of some pretty disgusting conduct on the part of the student.
5/24/11 11:27 AM
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419
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Embarrassing may not be enough. Call a lawyer in your jurisdiction.
5/24/11 11:46 AM
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TheDigitalRuler
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I am a lawyer in my jurisdiction. I don't have much direct experience with this sort of situation, though, so I'm just hoping to kick this around a bit and maybe get some other people's take on it.

I don't want to say any more about what the rumor might actually be, but for the purposes of our discussion, I'd like to simply assume it would qualify as being defamatory. Just imagine it's something along the lines of the student having exposed himself in class, engaged in homosexual conduct, etc.
5/24/11 1:07 PM
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jbapk
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So you're question is other forms of relief then recall or damages? I guess the best would be some sort of retraction, by mailing the year book receipiants that there was a mistake in the yearbook? You could also get an injuction againsting printing more copies, and in a public school at least you might be able to force the school to institute policies regarding this situation. Not sure about private.
5/24/11 1:43 PM
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TheDigitalRuler
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^ Yes, this is essentially what I'm driving at. Although I would just draw one distinction and say that instead of asking just what kinds of relief would be available, I'd really like to focus more broadly on what strategies the student might go about seeking such relief.

I guess we can establish the basic textbook response, which would be to simply demand a retraction, wait however long the state retraction statute says, and then file a defamation lawsuit against the school. But what about the practical question, like what should the school do in issuing a retraction? Putting a correction in the 2012 yearbook doesn't seem like it would go too much good, and of course it's going to be impossible for the school to recall every copy of the yearbook that's already been handed out...

Another problem is that if the school publishes a retraction, e.g. a handout that goes to everyone who received a yearbook declaring the rumor to be false, they're going to wind up calling even more attention to the situation, which of course the student wants to avoid.

These are the sorts of questions I'm trying to come up with some creative solutions to.
5/24/11 2:10 PM
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jbapk
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They can send letters of retraction out to that years class through alumni/school records list.

In terms of the consequences of the lawsuit, that's kinda the issue in any lawsuit like this. I would sit down with the client, go over their options, explain the possible consequences, and then let them decide what's best for them. At the end of the day it's their decision.

If you want to try and keep the issue secret you can always approach the school and let them know you're considering legal act, and try and work something out before filoing suit.
5/24/11 6:32 PM
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KenTheWalrus
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If you're in a per se state and the rumor can get you into per se territory, I would go that way since injury is assumed. I would go for damages, retraction, and injunction. I would settle for lower damages, retraction, and change in school printing policies.

If it's per quod then I would put on my scary face and threaten everything. I'd probably look to settle for anything that appeases my client, but proving injury may be hard.

5/25/11 12:43 PM
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TheDigitalRuler
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Thanks Ken and jbapk for the great input.

While it could probably be argued either way, I'm pretty sure the rumor would not constitute libel per se in my state.
5/25/11 6:59 PM
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"I am a lawyer in my jurisdiction."

My bad.
6/13/11 2:56 PM
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BarkLikeADog
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On a side note, if there were any publication in the history of mankind that could be fully recalled, it would have to be a school yearbook. There are clear records of who bought what & it's not like a highly valuable commodity that changes owners all the time.

Not that I'd find that issue relevant in an internet age where surely several somebodies have already scanned it & posted it a bajillion times, just pointing out a flaw in logic.

As a matter of practicality, we can assume the rumor will NEVER fully go away; if the client wants to mitigate the damages I'd at the very least make it a matter of public record by pursuing the student that contributed the actual content in the first place. As a matter of course, yearbook is a final project for journalism students, & it's reasonably likely you can get that student's diploma withheld & tie up his/her collegiate life until the situation is resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

One has to imagine that within the next several decades that every little thing that ever happens to anyone is forever going to be a data point tied to that person & readily available to anyone who wants it, so we're going to have to figure out different ways of dealing with it - the law just isn't going to be able to compensate for the complete lack of privacy we're bound to face eventually.

On a personal note, my high school's yearbooks were routinely rejected from the publisher (Herff Jones) for what they deemed racy content that in my opinion was extremely benign; more often than not the problems stemmed from ad copy from sponsors. I only mention this because I find it odd that something significant could slip through given that the teachers in charge & the companies that publish them are so over-the-top tedious; I have to wonder if this is a mountain/molehill issue or worse yet, one of deliberate dishonesty on the part of the client.
7/1/11 7:30 PM
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StephenL
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if he was in the drama club, it's gonna be tough to argue against it.

stephen

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