January 25, 2005 11:34 AM PST

Professor's Web posting at center of libel suit

When Donald Mayer placed a student's essay on Oakland University's Web site as an example for others taking his graduate-level business class, he probably never thought he'd end up in court as a result.

But thanks to Google's all-encompassing reach, Mayer and the university were named as defendants in a libel lawsuit that the Michigan Appeals Court decided earlier this month.


Donald Mayer
Professor,
Oakland University

The student's essay, the product of a class assignment, alleged ethical and legal lapses at his former employer, an industrial automation firm called Ben-Tech. An executive at that company had urged student Eric Kaczor to purloin "all relevant materials, such as software and documentation," from Siemens and bring them to his new job at Ben-Tech, the paper asserted.

A decade ago, that discussion of business mores might have begun and ended inside Mayer's classroom on the Rochester, Mich., campus of Oakland University. But because Mayer posted the essay on the school's Web site, and because the site was open to the entire Internet, Google's voracious spiders soon discovered it.

After redacting Kaczor's name, Mayer posted the rest of the essay in January 2002 as an example for other students in his current class. Two months later, Ben-Tech demanded that Oakland University remove the paper and offer a retraction.

The school deleted it but refused to give a retraction, prompting Ben-Tech to file a lawsuit claiming that the Web publishing was libelous and harmful--not least because it was available through an ordinary Internet search on the company's name.

The Michigan Appeals Court says the lawsuit can proceed. "We conclude that Kaczor's paper, at minimum, strongly suggested, and more realistically, stated, that plaintiffs committed crimes by encouraging Kaczor to leave Siemens and bring with him proprietary information belonging to Siemens, in violation of a nondisclosure agreement," a panel of judges ruled Jan. 11.

A lower court had granted Mayer, the professor, summary judgment in his favor. But the appeals court overturned that decision, saying Mayer had not read the paper closely before posting it--arguably a serious lapse, "given Mayer's education as a lawyer, his position as a professor of business law and that he teaches defamation in the course at issue."

"We hoped that this died and went away, but Google brought it up again, and it becomes public again," said a representative of Ben-Tech, who declined further comment. "It will just never end." Mayer did not immediately respond to an interview request Tuesday.

6 comments

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Can something be libelous if it is true?
This article never established whether the student's claims were proven true or not. If the student's paper stated the truth, then can the offenders really sue ? Wow - how broken is this legal system, if that is the case.
Posted by lwvirden (83 comments )
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Truth is a defense
But one presumes that in suing, Ben-Tech is contending that the student's article is NOT true and thus libelous. The legal system is just fine...
Posted by Not Bugged (195 comments )
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What it is, is that they got caught
This company Ben-Tech expected an ex-employee of another corporation to put their livelihood on the line. If the ex-employee had been caught transferring industrial espionage to Ben-Tech, Ben-Tech would have disavowed any knowledge of the espionage (who US!!!!?). But I myself would like to know how something that is true can be libelous? But I live in Michigan and our Canadian Governor is pro-business (so are the courts) and will turn on individuals if it can make her a dollar.
Posted by techtype (25 comments )
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The embarassing truth
I would love it if the company actually got to pay for all the court time and travel, and the truth got re-published. Fear of litigation has given large companies enormous leverage (want to spend months in court?), and it would do my soul good if this case resulted in a public foot wound.
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