Monday, February 7, 2011

Student newspapers deserve freedom of the press, too

An interesting case popped out of California last month that I thought was worth a look.

Rajesh Srinivasan, a student at the University of California-Berkeley and the editor-in-chief of its student newspaper The Daily Californian, was involved in a lawsuit regarding content published on the paper’s website over four years ago.

Srinivasan was sued by Harvey Purtz, the father of a deceased football player from the school. Purtz demanded that Srinivasan remove an article and two blog posts about his son’s involvement in an altercation (physical and verbal abuse of a stripper) at a local adult club and his suspension from the football team that followed that incident.

Purtz’s decision to sue Srinivasan — who was not working at the paper let alone attending the school when the articles were published — was based on supposed “emotional distress” Srinivasan caused by keeping the information on the web after Purtz’s son’s death. The damage? Purtz sued for $7,500 for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Again, this wasn’t directed at the paper, its former editors or any of the writers involved with the original reports, but rather at Srinivasan himself.

Naturally, Srinivasan won the case handily when it was brought to small-claims court. Srinivasan’s decision not to pull the information was entirely honorable and the right thing to do.

The paper’s policies made retracting articles upon some sort of sentimental request — not because the information was false or irrelevant — a completely unethical decision. Coupled with the fact that Purtz did not meet two of the requirements for removing the information (having the person mentioned in the article himself filing the lawsuit and filing it within two years of the publication date, which is covered by the Uniform Single Publication Act), it seemed pretty clear from the onset that the court would rule in the defendant’s favor.

Interestingly enough (and perhaps obviously enough), these were the only two points touched upon in the court’s ruling. The larger ethical issues at stake, namely whether the court would rule in Purtz’s favor were his son still alive and were these articles published within the two year time limit, remain completely untouched by the court. One could argue that Purtz might have never even brought the issue to a court’s attention were the first of these circumstances true, but it’s nevertheless still an interesting topic to explore. I believe that no matter what, Purtz did not have a case. His son was a public figure. His actions were public record. There was nothing falsified in The Daily Californian reports. End of story.

This case presents one of the perverse and often baffling challenges journalists face every day: sometimes people just don’t like what you publish. But just because someone dislikes an article for the truth it reveals does not mean that they have the right to make you take it down. What happened to Purtz’s son was tragic. But attacking articles that were more than four years old, that discussed public information about a public football player, was a completely fruitless endeavor.

Not only was The Daily Californian completely within its means to publish this information when it first came out in 2006, it was completely within its means to keep that information online even when the person in question passed away.

I think Srinivasan himself said it best when he told the Fresno Bee that the articles simply did not meet the paper’s standards for retraction:
The truth is, you can’t erase history, and that article is part of UC Berkeley history, for better or for worse.

Docket reports from the case

College Media Matters blog post

Article from the Student Press Law Center

The First Amendment Center's take


  1. Jill,

    This was an interesting post. It seems as though the father of this football player had absolutely no case to make. Like you said, his son was a public figure and his son's actions were of public interest. Perhaps, the football player's father thought that since his son was only a college football player, that he wasn't actually a public figure. In my opinion (and apparently in the opinion of the court) even college athletes are public figures as well.

    This case is interesting because it deals with a younger man who is now deceased. If I were a father and my son had passed away, would I want this information on the Internet? Absolutely not, but unfortunately, the most ethical thing to do was the keep the information posted for the public to see.

    --Sam Zuba

  2. Jill,

    Like you and Sam both noted, there really was no case here. Of course our hearts go out to the family of this young man who passed away. It is terribly tragic to lose a child and we can understand where this father is coming from.

    But I think we should take a closer look at the facts of the case. The father filed for "intentional infliction of emotional distress." Was the father filing on behalf of himself? If so, how was an article that was published four years ago intentionally put out there to cause distress of the subject's father? The claim itself doesn't make sense. Again, we feel for the father here but these stories were not put on the Internet to hurt anyone.

    As journalists, it is our job to report the facts. We don't make them up, in fact we verify, double and triple check to make sure they are the truth. If his son was involved in those unfortunate incidents, then it is our job to notify the public of them.