Here’s a case with lessons for school administrators, especially when a school incident has grown into a national news story. And it has even greater lessons for the news media when it comes to verifying the facts about controversial incidents in schools.
At a middle school in Lewiston, Maine, in April 2007, a student placed a bag containing ham on a cafeteria table where some Muslim students from Somalia were eating lunch.
Muslims, of course, do not eat any form of pork, and the gesture offended the Somali students. They said it reminded them of an earlier incident in Lewiston in which someone rolled the head of a pig into a church where Somali refugees worshipped, according to court documents.
Administrators at Lewiston Middle School suspended the student who had placed the ham for 10 days and classified the incident as a “hate crime/bias” in the school computer.
The Lewiston Sun Journal wrote an article about the incident. But trouble began when an independent writer, Nicholas Plagman, posted his own account of the incident on a Web site called Associated Content. Plagman’s account purported to be a news story, but it stretched some of the facts, such as reporting that the student had left a ham sandwich (instead of what in fact had been a ham roll) and that school administrators were developing “an ‘anti-ham’ response plan.” It also falsely quoted Lewiston schools Superintendent Leon Levesque as saying that “ham is not a toy” and the incident was “akin to making these kids feel like they’re being shot at back in Mogadishu and being starved to death.”
Plagman’s account caught the attention of producers of the Fox News Channel’s morning “Fox & Friends” show. With some background checking, which included turning up the more trustworthy Lewiston Sun Journal account, the show’s hosts commented on the incident on the air on April 24, 2007. The hosts ridiculed Levesque, in part based on the false quotes from the superintendent included in Plagman’s account.
The superintendent later complained to the Fox channel, and when the producers realized that the Plagman article was faulty, they issued a retraction and apology to Levesque, court papers say.
Levesque nevertheless sued the Fox show’s host and producers for libel and other claims, alleging that he was defamed by the on-air discussion.
A federal district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that while the Fox show included material that was false and offensive, there was no evidence the producers and hosts acted with actual malice.
In a March 19 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, upheld the lower court ruling.
The appeals panel unanimously agreed that the false comments attributed to Levesque were defamatory. The court called the defendants “negligent in their failure to question adequately the reliability of the Plagman article and conduct further research before attributing the outrageous quotations to Levesque.”
The court was clearly sympathetic to the superintendent, but it said he failed to meet the high standard under the Supreme Court’s New York Times v. Sullivan decision for proving the defendants acted with actual malice.
“While the defendants reported as true false statements, they did so after verifying the underlying facts of the April 11 incident,” the appellate court said in Levesque v. Doocy. “Their vetting process was perhaps too cursory and perfunctory, but no facts indicate that the defendants purposefully avoided the truth, and we think the substantial truth of the story which they reported obviates a finding of actual malice.”
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.