Tarleton tries to stifle freedom of speech

By: Madison Reed

Executive Producer

On July 28, Texan News Service (TNS) received a letter via email from a lawyer Diana R. Warshow from Nesennoff & Miltenberg, LLP representing former Tarleton professor, Micheal Landis, threatening to sue TNS if certain articles written in 2018 were not removed from the TNS website regarding reports made about Landis and alleged inappropriate relationships with female students.

According to the letter, the articles “contained highly defamatory statements about Landis” and also “Contained unfounded and false content about [their] client, reporting baseless claims that Landis engaged in sexual harassment and created a hostile educational environment.”

They demanded the articles be taken down “in their entirety on or before August 6, 2021, in order to prevent further damage, harassment and threats against our client.”

They also said, “While we hope to be able to resolve this matter swiftly, our client is prepared to take any and all legal action necessary to resolve the damage caused by the publishing and dissemination of the Statements on your website and recoup any losses suffered.”

At first, TNS staffers were not worried about the letter because it contradicted the TNS’s freedom of speech and the press as well as the Texas defamation law, Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code section 16.002, which states, “A person must bring suit for malicious prosecution, libel, slander, or breach of promise of marriage not later than one year after the day the cause of action accrues.”

The time in which the Statutes of Limitations offers has already expired.

In addition, after reading the articles that were published, TNS found the students who were “sexually harassed” by Landis approached TNS with the information as well as provided documented proof of the “harassment.”

There was also an investigation on Landis within Tarleton after complaints had been made by three separate female students; and, according to a memorandum written to one of the students on March 28, 2018, by the Associate Vice President of Academic Administration Dwayne Snider, who retired from Tarleton on June 15, 2018, it was recommended that Landis be terminated

Due to not having an advisor on staff at the time the letter was received, TNS didn’t want legal action to take place without a department head knowing what was going on. The letter was forwarded to Communication Studies Department Head Christopher Gearhart, TNS’s interim advisor at the time. Gearhart then forwarded it to the Dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts Eric Morrow.

Dr. Eric Morrow
Photo Courtesy of Tarleton.edu

On Aug. 4, TNS received a verbal request from Gearhart asking if representatives from TNS would be willing to meet with Morrow and Assistant Dean and Associate Professor of English Ben Sword in order to discuss what actions TNS should take regarding the letter. 

An hour later, representatives of TNS, Editor-in-Chief Sierra Dyson, Executive Producer Madison Reed and Sports Editor Cody Vannoy, went to the meeting.

During the meeting, which included the representatives from TNS, Morrow, Gearhart and Sword and lasted for nearly an hour, the TNS staffers were under the impression rather quickly that Tarleton would not back TNS with the threat and would make them remove the articles from their website despite the Statutes of Limitation and First Amendments issues.

Dr. Benjamin Sword
Photo Courtesy of Tarleton.edu

Dyson then removed the articles at Morrow’s request.

Several days after the meeting, TNS was made aware of a letter written by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Student Press Law Center that was sent to Tarleton on Aug. 30. 

The letter included details of what took place, how the University violated the students of TNS’ First Amendment rights and asking Tarleton to right its wrongs. 

On Sept. 10, a letter from Elinore T. Tecson, an assistant general counsel with the Texas of A&M University office of general counsel, sent a response in Tarleton’s place and informed the lawyers with FIRE and SPLC that she was assigned the matter and asked that all future correspondence be directed to her.

In addition, she informed FIRE and SPLC that she will have an updated response to them no later than Oct. 1.

A public records request by Lindsie Rank, the lawyer with FIRE, later revealed Tarleton paid Landis in excess of $61,000 “in exchange for Landis waiving all claims against the university.”

Rank explained that this was important for two reasons.

One reason was that this information wasn’t known before, and the second reason is, “Contrary to Tarleton’s argument that TNS needed to remove the articles to prevent Tarleton from facing liability for the articles, the university could not have faced liability” whether TNS is part of the university or independent of the university.

Rank further stated, “Either way you cut it, the university would not have been legally liable for defamation even if Landis’s claims were legitimate [which, again they were not]. This makes their demand that you remove the content all the more sinister in appearance, and censorial in practice because it demonstrates they had no reasonable fear of financial liability.”

TNS is dedicated to giving its readers high-quality news and as such will keep its readers updated on any further information or development within the story.

This story has been edited from its printed version.

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