A judge ruled last week in favor of The Irish Rover, an independent student publication at Notre Dame, in a defamation suit. FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative watched this case closely as the newspaper's attorney fought for the First Amendment rights of student journalists. But, as we see the number of lawsuits and threats of litigation against student publications rise, SPFI is here for all those student papers who may not have an attorney.
Last year, a professor at the University of Notre Dame sued the school’s conservative student newspaper, The Irish Rover, for defamation, making the audacious argument that the newspaper “is not entitled to First Amendment protection” in a defamation case because “it is a private student newspaper at a private university.” The professor, Tamara Kay, had previously asked the student newspaper to retract two articles reporting on her pro-abortion activism, according to news reports, claiming the articles contained “defamatory and false statements.”
When The Irish Rover refused to issue a retraction, Kay filed a lawsuit in July 2023, which had all the earmarks of a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” or a “SLAPP” suit, which is a form of groundless lawsuit intended to silence and punish critics for their speech by forcing them into costly litigation. So the student newspaper promptly filed a motion under Indiana’s anti-SLAPP law asking the judge to dismiss the case.
On Monday, Jan. 8, an Indiana court sided with The Irish Rover and dismissed Kay’s lawsuit on anti-SLAPP grounds, an outcome that upholds the rights of student newspapers and journalists across the state. St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Steven David wrote that “the alleged defamatory statements were true,” and that the newspaper reports “were made in the furtherance of the defendant’s right to free speech.”
FIRE is committed to defending student journalists — and the laws and court decisions that safeguard their rights.
Why is this important?
Because the rights of journalists, especially student journalists, are under threat across the country, with powerful individuals and organizations increasingly turning to SLAPP suits to silence their critics. FIRE has frequently argued that states need stronger anti-SLAPP legislation to protect the free speech rights of citizens and journalists. Just in the last year, FIRE announced our defense of a retired Idaho search-and-rescue worker who was sued for criticizing his wealthy neighbor’s plans to build an airstrip near protected land. We applauded New Jersey for joining more than 30 other states that have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes. And we called for federal anti-SLAPP legislation after X Corp. (formerly known as Twitter) sued Media Matters for America for defamation.
The most important bulwark against frivolous lawsuits entangling the free press is the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. As FIRE wrote last year, the landmark ruling “matters more than ever”:
Critics believe Sullivan gives the media unfettered license to publish defamatory coverage, leaving its victims with no recourse to respond. Many also believe overturning the decision would give regular people teeth to bite back against what they view as the media’s abuse of power.
But would reversing this 1964 Supreme Court precedent really protect the little guy and balance the scales?
Not at all. In fact, Sullivan has historically given countless Davids a fighting chance against a long line of Goliaths. Reversing the decision would be like taking away David’s sling and stones.
Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have both called for Sullivan to be overturned, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have expressed a willingness to revisit it. Without decisions like Sullivan decisively upholding First Amendment rights, student journalists on college campuses across the country (and journalists everywhere) would even more frequently find themselves targets of lawsuits for accurately reporting on current events.
At FIRE, the Student Press Freedom Initiative defends press freedom on campus by advocating for the rights of student journalists at colleges and universities. SPFI’s free legal hotline — 717-734-7734 (SPFI) — offers legal information and connections to representation to student journalists who may otherwise be without access to legal assistance. One FIRE survey found that more than 60% of college newspapers experience at least one instance of administrative censorship each year.
Student journalists play a vital role in their communities, often serving as a check on their university administrators or finding stories that might escape mainstream media. And for many college towns, student newspapers become something like public archives, chronicling the day-to-day history of the community, demonstrating one of the many aspects of their importance. FIRE is committed to defending student journalists — and the laws and court decisions that safeguard their rights.
On today's free speech news roundup, we discuss the recent NetChoice oral argument, Taylor Swift, doxxing, October 7 fallout on campus, and Satan in Iowa. Joining us on the show are Alex Morey, FIRE director of Campus Rights Advocacy; Aaron...