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Letter from the Editor: On Libel, Due Diligence and Intimidation

I woke up early this morning, rolled over, checked my laptop and opened an email labeled URGENT. It was from a senior University official informing me that The Daily had published a libelous story.

Uh oh.

The next 10 minutes of my browser history are filled with Google searches for “defamation lawsuits with newspapers,” Supreme Court case briefs and blogs on libel..

But as I continued to comb through the Internet, fearing perhaps that I had fallen asleep in my journalism ethics class or in the host of communications classes that have touched on libel, slander and the like, I began almost to laugh.

It certainly wasn’t because I (and the rest of the staff here at The Daily) take the accusation of defamation or libel anything less than extremely seriously. (My news editor would call me some hours later in somewhat of a panic after waking up to the same email.)

No, my amusement was rather directed at the gall of the University to send me a message that carried with it the threat of pursuing a libel case, a message that I felt at least in some way had to be sent with an air of intimidation.

The story in question was one I believe is of extreme importance to the student body and Stanford community. “Case study finds flawed, slanted judicial process” details a case study put together by three students and their alumni representatives, including Bob Ottilie ’77, after a 2011 judicial proceeding. The students say that several of their rights under the Student Judicial Charter of 1997 were obstructed and that it seemed unlikely that their case was merely the outlier in a system that saw 154 allegations of violations (resulting in 93 official charges) of either the Honor Code or the Fundamental Standard in 2010-11.

This should matter to you, students, and to you, alumni, and to you, staff, faculty and administrators. The case study is thorough, and if half of the allegations of misconduct are true, students should simply be scared enough to call for more transparency in the judicial affairs process as a whole.

And if the allegations are false, then I beg the University to call Bob Ottilie and these three students out for concocting a gross lie. I beg them to call me out for believing in the charade. But at this moment, I have heard nothing of substance that would lead me to believe that this study is anything but true.

I know there are privacy laws that must be obeyed, and I know this might put an unfair expectation on University officials to answer questions they say they are not allowed to on advice of counsel. This, then, appears to be an unfortunate impasse for both parties, as we at The Daily must deal in facts and quotes to retain any real credibility.

But to that end, The Daily’s reporters went through a follow-up investigation of the case. And in the subsequent interviews that we conducted, University officials noted disagreements with some aspects of the case and contested the light in which it paints some of the officials involved. Dean of Student Life Chris Griffith notes in a letter to the editor that “to extrapolate from a single anomalous case that an entire system is flawed is simply wrong.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

However, Griffith also says despite being “seriously flawed and inaccurate” in many instances, “the case study was helpful in some limited respects.”

If the study was helpful, does that not mean that at the very least, some of what was said was accurate? Does that not imply that somewhere in the wealth of evidence that Otillie and these students provide (the case study itself is over 50 pages), something stuck?

That’s what it says to me, and that is what scares me, because in my mind that begins a descent down a slippery slope that trends towards students not being aware of many of the rights they possess and ultimately ends with an innocent student being convicted in an unfair process. I am not saying that this has occurred, as I have no knowledge of any such case, but I am saying that it is our role at The Daily to be vigilant and watchful and to report on issues that we believe should be moved further into the light of day.

In short, this is a story worth telling, and I hope administrators can appreciate that just as there is value in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities with the goal to improve Stanford, student life and the world, there is value in my job and The Daily’s job to educate and inform students and the community about relevant issues.

And while I have no way of knowing whether or not the actions of the senior official who contacted me were at the direction of the general counsel or any other group of University administrators, they felt and read strongly like intimidation.

Perhaps I am overreacting, and the email, as well as the phone call I received 20 minutes after the email, were just misguided attempts to warn me of my exposure at The Daily. Certainly the call was neither intimidating nor berating as I explained my confusion as to how the story we published would in any way qualify as libel.

In fact, after I noted that The Daily had done its due diligence and was neither malicious nor negligent in its coverage of the story, the official was very agreeable. But that does not make the email go away nor change the tone of what read as a threat of a lawsuit should The Daily not take the story down and redact the names of the officials alleged to have done wrong.

Just as I believe that students care enough about what happens on this campus to find the truth for themselves, I believe The Daily has a responsibility to inform its readers of potential misconduct, and we will continue to do just that, right alongside the overwhelming body of outstanding work that emanates from this institution.

Miles Bennett-Smith

Editor in Chief

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Miles Bennett-Smith

Miles Bennett-Smith

Miles Bennett-Smith is Chief Operating Officer at The Daily. An avid sports fan from Penryn, Calif., Miles graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in American Studies. He has previously served as the Editor in Chief and President at The Daily. He has also worked as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee. Email him at [email protected]