Libel lawsuit against Cornell University Library digitization project dismissed

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Contact: Ellen Marsh
Phone: (607) 254-4680

E-mail: ebm7@cornell.edu

Libel Lawsuit Against Cornell University Library Digitization Project Dismissed

A federal judge has dismissed a Cornell graduate’s $1 million lawsuit filed over a 1983 article in the Cornell Chronicle that had been recently digitized and made available online by Cornell University Library.

The court ruled in Cornell's favor on it's motion to strike under the California anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation (anti-SLAPP) statute, a law designed to protect the exercise of free speech and freedom of the press from punitive lawsuits.  The court also authorized Cornell to submit an application for attorneys' fees as the prevailing party.

Cornell University Library received funding to digitize past issues of the Cornell Chronicle, Cornell’s weekly newspaper. Last year, the Library scanned and digitized several years of the Chronicle’s printed papers and put them up in eCommons, a university digital storage and retrieval system administered by the Library. Once on eCommons, the newspaper became accessible to Google. 

The alumnus, Kevin Vanginderen, asserted the university libeled him and disseminated private information about him on the Web via a Google search. The March 1983 issue of the Chronicle contained information about Mr. Vanginderen’s involvement in campus thefts. Now a lawyer in California, Mr. Vanginderen found the article when he googled his name. He contacted the Library, asking that this information be removed from the online version of the Chronicle, a request the Library refused.

Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz, of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of California, dismissed the suit last week, concluding that the university did not defame Mr. Vanginderen because the information in the Chronicle was mostly accurate.

“I feel this is a real victory for the Library in terms of being able to make documentary material accessible,” said Anne R. Kenney, Cornell University’s Carl A. Kroch University Librarian. “I do share concerns that individuals might have about potentially embarrassing material being made public, but I don’t think you can go back and distort the public record,” adding that the Library has no plans to alter its digitization procedures as a result of the case.

Because the court ruled that this was an anti-SLAPP suit, it did not consider the more problematic issue in the case: whether digitization of the Chronicle constituted republication of the paper.

Cornell University Library archivist Peter Hirtle, a leader in Cornell’s extensive digitization programs, noted the negative impact that a finding that digitization was the equivalent of republication could have had. “It would be disastrous if every time we scan something, we had to take the same editorial responsibility as the initial publisher," said Hirtle.  Nevertheless, he believes the decision is a step forward. “It reaffirms the important role libraries can play in promoting free speech and providing ready public access to information on the activities of government," he noted.

The same judge is scheduled to rule on the second, $10 million, defamation suit that has been filed against Cornell and its lawyers by Mr. Vanginderen.  “This first ruling augurs well for the outcome in the second suit,” said Hirtle.

For more information, please see the full article in the Cornell Chronicle at http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/June08/VanGsuit.ws.html.