BSG's lawyer alleges libel
Legal letter delivered to The Stylus' editor demands resignation and retraction
Published: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Updated: Monday, February 21, 2011 21:02
A legal document delivered on behalf of Brockport Student Government (BSG) to The Stylus' editor-in-chief, William Matthias, accuses Matthias of libeling BSG Treasurer Kyle Kirchgraber in a column published Wednesday, Feb. 2.
The document, prepared by BSG's lawyer William P. Smith Jr., of Woods Oviatt Gilman, LLP , demands that Matthias resign, print a retraction, take the article offline and take other action to "diminish the harm he has caused."
Matthias said he has no intention of taking any of these actions.
"I will not be intimidated into resigning," Matthias said. "And I will not print a retraction unless it is decided in a court of law that my statement (regarding Kirchgraber) constitutes libel, and I have been advised by a media law expert that it does not."
The letter, which Matthias said BSG President Eric May delivered Friday, Feb. 11, refers to an article entitled "Do the Matth: BSG puts student media in jeopardy." Matthias states in the article that Kirchgraber committed theft by stealing bundles of The Stylus' newspapers left over from the fall semester.
Kirchgraber presented the bundles to BSG's appropriations committee during a budget meeting. In the letter, Smith said this does not constitute a crime.
" ... any and all assets owned by <i>The Stylus</i> are in fact owned by BSG," Smith said. "To the extent that an officer of BSG acquires or uses those assets for a purpose that is common to both the organization and BSG, it is simply using its own assets."
The Stylus is partially funded by BSG, with the rest of its revenue coming from advertising. Page 11 of the Feb. 2 issue states that one copy of the paper is free and each additional copy is 25 cents.
May said the letter was written only to protect the organization and to avoid future legal complications that could arise as a result of the article. The letter stated that should Kirchgraber be denied employment as a result of Matthias' comments, BSG could be held legally accountable for the damages.
"In continued discussions with our legal council, we were advised that the actions of Mr. Matthias could potentially jeopardize Brockport Student Government as a whole," May said. "We were advised to release the letter. We have officially documented our communication to protect the whole organization from the public opinions of the editor-in-chief."
May said he is speaking on behalf of all of the BSG executive officers, including Kirchgraber.
Smith contends in his letter that The Stylus is an organization that is not capable of owning property according to New York state law. Furthermore, Smith argues that even if this were the case, this statement is false by virtue of the fact that these newspapers are jointly owned by BSG and The Stylus.
"… if <i>The Stylus</i> was a legal entity capable of ownership of property, it and BSG would be joint or common owners of that property," the letter reads.
But Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, disagrees.
"The people of New York own these things," Goldstein said. "If I own my house, I can turn it into a Taco Bell if I want to. Does the student government own the property in this way? No. The money is to serve a specific purpose, and that is to provide opportunities to the students at Brockport. You would call that a bailment."
Bailment is a legal term referring to the temporary transfer of property for a specified purpose.
Goldstein also said Matthias' statement is not libelous.
"If what BSG's lawyer is saying is that he (Kirchgraber) was acting in the capacity of an elected public official, then actual malice - reckless disregard for the truth - would have to be proved in court," Goldstein said. "The fact that Mr. Matthias consulted a lawyer shows that he did not have a reckless disregard for the truth."
Matthias said The Stylus consulted Goldstein and he spoke with The Stylus' advisor, Marsha Ducey, prior to publishing the article to ensure that his statements were accurate. Goldstein's advice appeared in the article.
In addition to the argument that this statement was false, Smith's letter cited Freedom of Information Law (FOI) requests submitted to May by Matthias on Feb. 4.
He said these requests could be used as evidence to bolster a case for libel.
Matthias wrote two letters to BSG requesting information, a BSG account status report (detailing expenses for the current academic year) and a copy "of all expenses related to any and all Brockport Student Government end-of-semester parties/celebrations."
Matthias said he took this action amid rumors that BSG spent thousands of dollars on an end-of-semester party.
Smith's letter denied these requests partly on the basis that The Stylus is an organization within BSG. The letter stated that there are no laws requiring an organization to transfer documents within itself.