What if you were a college student and you realized one of your professors kept a seating chart that included comments about each student’s race and judgments on their physical appearance? That’s the possibility that Elmhurst College students faced when an article was published in the student newspaper, The Leader, about Professor Timothy Hays, the music business director at Elmhurst College. A student allegedly took a photo of Hays’s seating chart when he was out of the room and sent it to the school newspaper.
The seating chart allegedly contained notes beneath each student’s name relating to their physical appearance, including “black,” “Hispanic,” and, for a female student, “cute.” While such notes might seem harmless to the professor, they could be in the view of some of the students and the college administration, ways of separating minority students out from the “normal” white, male students, and such notes some students and the administration could argue have a profound effect on the way the professor treats those students, even if he’s not consciously aware of it. Some will claim that such views simply reflect political correctedness and that private notes should not be a basis for taking action against a professor abesent proof that he has ever acted in such a discriminatory fashion. However, benign discrimination is always hard to detect.
Hays argued that the notes were intended to be private and were never meant to be publicly distributed and were simply a tool to help him identify and remember students and their classroom contributions. Hays then allegedly made the situation worse for himself after the initial article was published by allegedly lashing out at students in his class after the article was published. Some Students complained to college officials and got them to bring in a new professor for the class and The Leader published another article about Hays relating to the incident.
Another student alleged Hays cornered her in a stairwell and looked down her shirt. She said she told college officials about it, but nothing was done until the third article about Professor Hays was published, detailing the incident.
Hays is allegedly facing a Title IX investigation as a result of the notes he allegedly made on his seating chart, as well as his alleged actions following the publication of the first article about him in the student newspaper.
Hays responded by filing a defamation lawsuit in DuPage County court against the college, the newspaper, the school’s president, a faculty advisor, and a student journalist. Hays accused the articles of painting him in a bad light and damaging his reputation. In a statement released through his attorney, he said he felt compelled to file the defamation lawsuit in order to clear his name and protect others from similar treatment.
In his complaint, Hays alleges the student journalist and faculty advisor acted with “reckless disregard for the truth” in publishing the three articles about him in the student newspaper, which actually leads to an interesting legal question. While journalists are expected to conduct thorough research before publishing articles, especially those which could be damaging to public figures, are student journalists held to the same standards? Should they be?
Furthermore, professional journalists are most often writing about public figures, who have a much higher burden to bear when it comes to proving they were deliberately defamed, but a college professor might not be public figure but he could become a limited purpose public figure due to all the publicity some of which he arguably engaged in too. At the same time, articles in the student newspaper can (and clearly did) have a very real impact on his career now and for years into the future.
The outcome of this particular defamation lawsuit is still to be determined, but it will no doubt be interesting to see what the DuPage County court decides.
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