Grove City College historical theologian, Carl R. Trueman, has published an interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. The July 10, 2023 essay concerns a University of Notre Dame professor who is suing one of the school’s independent student newspapers, The Irish Rover. Trueman writes:
Stories of students canceling speakers have become commonplace in recent years. Last week South Bend, Ind., saw a new riff on this theme when Notre Dame sociology professor Tamara Kay sued a student newspaper for defamation, alleging that it misrepresented comments she made about abortion.
At issue are articles published in October 2022 and March 2023. Ms. Kay disputes the latter article’s assertion that she was “posting offers to procure abortion pills on her office door.” The defense brief says this was based in part on a sign posted on Ms. Kay’s office door: “This a SAFE SPACE to get help and information on ALL Healthcare issues and access—confidentially and with care and compassion.” Ms. Kay also alleges the March article falsely attributes statements to her at an appearance before the Notre Dame College Democrats; the paper says a transcript shows the quotations are substantially true. The Rover has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit under Indiana’s anti-SLAPP legislation designed to protect freedom of speech.
While the lawsuit’s immediate context is Notre Dame and its Catholic identity, the underlying issues raise deeper and broader questions about religious educational institutions and academic freedom.
Professor Trueman focuses on the consequences to academic freedom in college settings in which professors may file lawsuits against dissenting students at faith-based institutions. Although I share Professor Trueman’s concerns as well as his negative assessment of the quality of Professor Kay’s case, I do think (and Professor Trueman agrees) that there may be situations in which a professor has been defamed by a student newspaper or social media post, and for this reason legal action is justified. I can speak from personal experience. Over 15 years ago, a reporter from Baylor’s student newspaper, The Lariat, requested an interview with me about a matter of great controversy on campus. (I’d rather not mention what it was, since it’s all just ancient history to me now). I declined the interview. But the next morning, lo and behold, “an interview” with me appeared in the paper. The reporter, the son of a well-known Baylor professor, had clipped and pasted from some of my academic articles “answers” to questions I was never asked, giving the impression that the student had actually interviewed me. I immediately contacted the general counsel’s office and filed an informal complaint. Within two hours all the copies of the paper had been collected from bins around campus and destroyed. The reporter was never punished for what was a clear violation of the university’s honor code. After graduation, he was hired by the local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. I did not pursue the matter any further, though I think I would have been within my rights in doing so. (For about five years afterwards I regretted not having done so. But now, with the benefit of better hindsight, I am happy that nothing more came of it. I am sure the reporter was a decent young man just caught up in the moment, as many of us were apt to be when we were college students).