Our Views: UW-Whitewater acting too late to help student editor

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Andrea Behling's legal bind should frighten any aspiring college journalist with dreams of becoming the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. It also serves as a cautionary tale for the parents of any such student.

As Frank Schultz detailed in Sunday's Gazette, Behling played no role in the stories that got her sued. She only had the misfortunate timing of being editor of UW-Whitewater's student newspaper when faculty member Zhengnan “Charles” Shi decided to sue.

The Royal Purple in 2011 printed allegations from court documents suggesting Shi made threatening comments to colleagues. Those are among accusations that led the university to ban him from campus for much of 2011. The allegations were found to be without merit, and the ban was lifted in December 2011.

In 2012, Shi was fired. He says Chancellor Richard Telfer told him it was for bad teaching. Shi is fighting his dismissal, and that suit is before an appeals court.

Shi also sued alleging The Royal Purple's articles were inaccurate and harmful to him. Though the stories were printed before Behling became editor, he says his suit had to name the current top officer.

Shi demanded the paper run a story saying the allegations were found to be without merit. Because UW-W's administration wouldn't comment on its side of the dispute, Behling chose not to print it. She also says a faculty member told her not to respond to Shi and that he would go away.

The worst part for Behling, who works part time for The Gazette, is that The Royal Purple had no liability insurance and UW-W could not represent her in court.

Who knew? Certainly not Behling, who learned she was being sued as she studied for final exams last spring. And certainly not her parents, who might be at risk because Shi has asked for their financial statements.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Law Press Center, told The Gazette that the relationship between the newspaper and UW-W is odd but not unusual. The university can't serve as a student newspaper's publisher because it would erase editorial independence. Usually, if someone sues a university over a student newspaper story, the judge tosses the claim because the university isn't responsible. A suit against a student newspaper typically goes nowhere because such papers have no money.

To his credit, UW-W Chancellor Richard Telfer guided Behling to a firm specializing in media law. To her credit, attorney Sherry Coley of Godfrey & Kahn agreed to represent Behling without charge. A judge dismissed the suit, but Shi is appealing.

LoMonte believes Behling will escape personal liability because she had no direct link to the defamatory statements. That doesn't mean the appeal won't cost her more time and emotional anguish.

Behling has learned a hard lesson and believes it was irresponsible of The Royal Purple not to carry liability insurance. LoMonte, however, says few student newspapers have it. Carrying it would make papers targets for suits because insurers have money to pay.

The episode is forcing Behling and fellow staffers to be extra cautious about what they print. That might protect the innocent, but it could have a chilling effect on sound journalism if the paper hesitates to expose wrongdoing.

Carol Terracina-Hartman, The Royal Purple's faculty adviser, told Schultz that student editors weren't aware that they and their parents could be sued, so she's crafting a form for them to sign that warns them.

That's makes sense. Unfortunately, it's too little and too late to help Behling and her parents.

This editorial was revised Nov. 21, 2013, to reflect the following correction:


An earlier version of this story did not accurately report the circumstances that led to UW-Whitewater professor Zhengnan "Charles" Shi being banned from campus in 2011 and fired in 2012.

According to court documents and Shi, this is the proper series of events:

-- In 2010, Shi was accused of making threatening statements and was investigated by local and federal law enforcement officials, who found no reason to arrest him.

-- In February or March 2011, Shi was banned from campus, apparently in connection with the same allegations involving threatening statements. These statements were later found to be without merit. The ban was lifted in December 2011.

-- In 2012, UW-Whitewater fired Shi. Chancellor Richard Telfer cited poor teaching as the reason for Shi's dismissal. Shi rejects that characterization of his teaching and is contesting his firing in court. The case has not been resolved.

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