Reliance on Responsible Source Negates Actual Malice

When a defamatory statement is made about a public figure, a plaintiff must prove that the statement was published with actual malice, i.e. with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Mere proof that a defendant failed to investigate the truth of a statement is not enough to show actual malice, and where a defendant relies on a responsible source in making a statement, he has not been grossly negligent, much less malicious. However, evidence of intent to avoid the truth can be sufficient to satisfy the actual malice standard. The Second Circuit recently addressed these issues in Dongguk University v. Yale University.

When Shin Jeong-ah applied for a position as an art history professor at the prestigious Dongguk University in South Korea, she stated that she held a Ph.D. from Yale University in Art History, and she submitted a document on Yale University letterhead that purported to be a certification of her degree. The certification contained an exact reproduction of Yale Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister’s signature but misspelled the name and also misspelled the word “century” in Shin’s listed concentration – Twentieth Century Art. Nevertheless, Dongguk hired Shin and sent Yale an Inquiry Letter with the certification attached seeking to verify its authenticity. Dean Schirmeister received the letter and responded via fax “confirming that the attached letter [the certification] was issued by the Yale Graduate School and signed by me.”

Two years later, Dongguk became suspicious that Shin may have plagiarized her dissertation. An investigation revealed that Yale had no record of the dissertation and that in fact Shin had not received a Ph.D. from Yale. The Korean press latched on to the story, and Yale’s Deputy Counsel Susan Carney and Dean Edward Barnaby began referring all Shin-related media inquiries to its Office of Public Affairs.

Dongguk’s President, Youngkyo Oh, wrote Yale’s President, Richard Levin, noting the contradictory answers Dongguk had received from Yale as to whether Shin held a Ph.D. from Yale. Oh attached Schirmeister’s fax validating Shin’s certification and asked Levin to confirm whether Shin had or had not received a Ph.D. from Yale. Yale.jpgCarney and Barnaby responded to the letter, expressing concern about the fax and indicating that it contained “indicia of authenticity.” They did not ask Schirmeister if she had sent the fax but instead asked the Yale Police Department to look into the matter, suspecting that Shin had an accomplice at Yale who may have sent the fax. Carney responded to Oh’s letter confirming that Shin was never a Yale student and that the certification and Schirmeister fax were not authentic. Carney indicated Yale would continue to investigate the matter.

In responding to media inquiries, Yale’s Office of Public Affairs Assistant Director Gila Reinstein denied (1) the authenticity of the Schirmeister fax, (2) that Yale issued any document purporting to support Shin’s Yale degree, and (3) that Yale ever received the Inquiry Letter. Dongguk contends that Reinstein’s statements to the press were defamatory.

Dongguk eventually filed a criminal complaint against Shin. The U.S. Attorney’s Office subpoenaed answers from Yale which prompted Yale’s Associate General Counsel to investigate whether Yale had in fact received the Inquiry Letter. Eventually, the Yale mailroom confirmed receipt of the letter and its delivery to the graduate school. Schirmeister’s assistant found the Inquiry Letter along with the responsive fax. Carney wrote President Oh to correct her misstatements regarding the Schirmeister fax and stated that it was indeed authentic.

Dongguk filed a complaint against Yale alleging defamation among other claims. The District Court initially allowed the defamation claim to go forward, but upon reconsideration entered summary judgment for Yale on all counts. Dongguk appealed.

The defamation claim was evaluated under the common law of Connecticut, which closely resembles Virginia defamation law. Dongguk was required to prove that Yale was responsible for the publication of a defamatory statement, identifying Dongguk to a third person, and that Dongguk suffered injury as a result of the statement. And because Dongguk was a “public figure,” it was also required to prove that Yale published the statement with actual malice.

The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claim. The court reasoned that mere proof of failure to investigate is not enough to establish reckless disregard of the truth. Where statements are based on reliable sources, a defendant cannot be accused of gross negligence, much less actual malice. While evidence of intent to avoid the truth can be sufficient to constitute malice, there was no such evidence in this case.

Dongguk argued that Carney’s statements expressing concern about the fax and its apparent receipt in the Dean’s office and the fact that she initiated a police investigation indicate that she had serious doubts as to the truth of Reinstein’s statements to the press. Accordingly, because Carney failed to investigate the truthfulness the statements, Dongguk contended that she acted with actual malice. The court disagreed.

Throughout the investigation, Carney noted her skepticism about whether the fax was manufactured yet failed to investigate its authenticity. However, failure to investigate does not establish actual malice without something more. Here, the court found that there was nothing more. Although the failure to discover a misstatement may demonstrate negligence, it does not establish actual malice. Dongguk had no evidence that Carney entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statements or that her decision not to investigate further constituted purposeful avoidance of the truth.

Dongguk also argued that Yale’s failure to retract its statements when it learned they were false established actual malice. The court noted that the actual malice inquiry considers the state of mind of the defendant at the time the statement was made. The failure to correct an earlier misstatement may be relevant to the actual malice inquiry but only where there is some evidence of actual malice at the time the statements were made. Here, there was no such evidence. None of the speakers involved were aware of the probable falsity of the statements when they were made, and Dongguk provided no evidence that anyone at Yale acted with improper motives.

The court held that Dongguk failed to present any evidence that any individual at Yale who was responsible for publication of a defamatory statement acted with actual malice. Therefore, it affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in Yale’s favor on the defamation claim.

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