For Yale campus tabloid Rumpus, free speech and boundless mockery just got a bit more expensive.
$10,000 more expensive.
This past spring, a libel case filed four years ago against Yale, then-Rumpus reporter Jelani Lawson ’96 and staff members Ray Deck ’96, Tara Harris ’98 and Joshua Westland ’98 was settled. The court awarded Ed Anderson ’91, a local property manager, $10,000 in damages.
Although the case was settled out of court and no allegations were proven, he claimed that a story Lawson wrote in 1995 — which called Anderson “a slumlord” and ridiculed his property management and personal life — damaged his reputation and mental health.
Six years, two published apologies and $10,000 later, “The Oldest College Tabloid” still devotes every issue to giving Yalies’ good names a good-natured smearing.
The Facts of the Case
Plaintiff’s official complaint: “Said article — claimed that ‘he’s a cokehead, that’s generally the root of his cash flow problems.'”
Rumpus ran a cover story under the headlines “Off-Campus Nightmare” and “Rumpus exposes New Haven slumlord.” Lawson, the author of the article, was one of Anderson’s tenants and subsequently served as a Ward 2 alderman.
“The more people I talked to, I realized that everyone had stories about this guy,” said Lawson. “My interest was putting the Yale community on notice that there was a less-than-scrupulous property manager renting apartments in the area.”
Lawson wrote the article in classic Rumpus style — he wove together campus rumors and incendiary quotations to ridicule multiple aspects of Anderson’s personal and professional life.
The story featured several personal anecdotes about overflowing toilets and mushrooms growing under hallway stairs.
At the bottom of the second page, below a photograph of a house surrounded by a 20-foot pile of garbage and the caption “Ed’s idea of waste management,” is an innocuous sentence.
“Very little information is available about Ed, but rumors abound,” it reads. The following 10 paragraphs discuss conjecture of Anderson’s drug dealing and alcoholic undergraduate years, including suggestions that he was expelled from the University.
The article also called him the “Heidi Fleiss of New Haven property management.”
Anderson demanded a published apology but remained unsatisfied. In 1997, he decided to sue Rumpus staffers involved — as well as Yale — for libel.
Seeking a published retraction of the offending article as well as compensation for legal fees and damages for mental and financial anguish, Anderson filed a seven-page complaint.
Anderson alleged that Lawson wrote the article to settle a personal vendetta against him. Yale was named a defendant as well for failing to discipline the undergraduate publication.
Anderson claimed in his official complaint that he suffered “numerous sleepless nights, had his appetite adversely affected — was embarrassed and at times did not go out, [and] became self-conscious when someone looked or glanced at him because he thought the attention was caused by matters published in the libel.”
The legal battle went on for years.
“These are the facts,” Anderson began, as he leaned across the table at Au Bon Pain, fiddling with the lid of his coffee cup. “The author had an ax to grind, Rumpus gave him free range and printed the article, I cried foul and they refused to publish a retraction. The deans neglected to get involved, so I had no choice but to sue.”
His voice was tired.
Anderson said that Lawson and his friends rented an apartment from him in the summer of 1995, but he was forced to file an eviction suit because the young men failed to pay their rent.
Lawson denied that such a suit ever occurred.
Anderson remembers that summer differently. After the eviction, Lawson wanted revenge, he said. He pointed out that before this, Lawson had never written an article for Rumpus, and never wrote another one again.
Lawson warned him before the article went to press, Anderson added.
“He called me up and said, ‘I’m writing this story on you. I’m going to get you.'”
Anderson said he made every attempt to avoid legal action, but Rumpus answered his request for a printed retraction by publishing a sarcastic apology that reasserted the 1995 author of the article claims. He said he pursued the matter with the University, but the deans’ office refused to take disciplinary measures.
Anderson shifted in his chair and bent the corner of the plastic coffee lid until it snapped. “If I could have found any humor in the article, I wouldn’t have [sued],” he said. “I tried to, but I couldn’t. It was a hatchet job.”
Rumpus and the Law
Plaintiff’s official complaint: “Said article [claimed that Anderson] was one of the founders of Sigma Nu, but they kicked him out because he was too shady.”
Many may have taken these allegations as just another instance of the tabloid’s seemingly harmless antics, but Anderson claimed that the article damaged his reputation.
For a published statement to be considered libelous, the plaintiff must prove that it causes the subject to feel ashamed or lowered in the esteem of those who read it. But if many students do not take seriously what they read in Rumpus, would they still form unfavorable opinions of Anderson based on the tabloid’s claims?
The incredulous mind-set of the average Yale reader “might be a factor [in a libel case against Rumpus],” explained history of law professor Robert Gordon. “If the damaging article about the landlord were next to a story about how George W. Bush is really Michelle Pfeiffer in drag, that would cast doubt on the seriousness of the article.”
Yale Law School professor and First Amendment specialist Jack Balkin warned against taking the issue too lightly.
“Not everyone in the Yale community — knows to take [Rumpus] with a grain of salt,” he said. “This is the problem with practical jokes: All the people who read them might not be conditioned to them or understand the irony.”
By law, a publication is responsible for signaling to readers that it is expressing opinion rather than fact or otherwise should not be taken literally, said Balkin. Rumpus may not have sent such a signal regarding the story on Anderson to a first-time reader.
Balkin, an avid Rumpus reader, said that although the tabloid is mostly a joke, perhaps it should bear more responsibility for the stories it prints.
“Actually, it’s kind of unfair that they use ‘Come on, we’re Rumpus’ as an excuse to write whatever they want,” he said. “Why should they be allowed to have a different standard?”
Plaintiff’s official complaint: “Page four [of the Rumpus article] — contained a picture of the Plaintiff under which the following words appeared: ‘This guy is an idiot.'”
Libel law aside, some Yalies would be tickled to see their picture in Rumpus with a caption like this. Joseph Yrigollen ’02 recalls his debut in the tabloid as the crowning achievement of his life.
“I walked into the dining hall, and my entire table exploded in applause,” he remembers. “They shouted ‘You made Rumpus!'”
Yrigollen opened a nearby copy of Rumpus to see his picture printed above the caption “These guys suck!”
“I did think the exclamation point was a bit much,” he admits. “But I felt honored.”
The suit does not seem to have had any lasting effects on Rumpus’s journalistic ethic or its perception on campus.
Current co-Editor-in-Chief Jared LeBoff ’03 admitted that they did learn something from their forerunners’ legal troubles.
“It was a good educational experience to see the process [of the lawsuit]. An alum sent us a guide to tort laws on libel, and we have it hanging up in the office,” he said.
Lawson is glad the whole mess is over, although he continues to stand by what was written in the article, he said.
“Actually, I hope [this coverage] brings the focus to the original article again, so people can know about [Anderson],” he said.
The mission of Rumpus seems to have remained intact.
Joshua Gruenspecht ’02, who has worked on the publication throughout his time at Yale, beamed.
“We encourage a lack of ethics and the ability to prevaricate extensively,” he said. “And I’d like to point out that one third of Rumpus alumni go on to Yale Law.”