Thursday, October 6, 2011
C.A. Rejects Libel Suit Over Claim School Was ‘Degree Factory’
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday upheld the dismissal of a defamation action against a Korean-language news company over its broadcast of a story which characterized an unaccredited university in Compton as a “degree factory.”
Div. Eight said the Korean Broadcasting System’s Sept. 2, 2007 story about its investigation of Yuin University, which asserted that the school “confer[s] degrees to persons who have not properly studied at their place,” was not actionable when considered in context.
The story aired as a segment entitled “Degree Factory Confers Doctorate Degrees even to Persons who Plagiarize,” while there was a controversy in Korea over high-profile Koreans lying about their academic credentials.
It was reported that 47 people had disclosed to the Korean Research Foundation that they received doctorate degrees from Yuin and 40 dissertations were lodged there. The reporters found some of these graduate theses to be identical, down to the typographical errors, and another one appeared to have been copied from articles found online.
Reporters visited the Yuin campus and said it was “vacant,” as there were no students or teachers present at that time. One graduate told the reporters that he twice stayed one week in Los Angeles to obtain his degree from Yuin but otherwise never came on campus.
The broadcast concluded that “[t]he school in question is virtually a ghost school that cannot be found on any…reliable websites including that of the State of California.
“Without being controlled, this school that recklessly issued degrees no[t] admissible even in [the] U.S.A. has invited new students by maintaining an admission office in Korea until last year.”
Yuin brought suit against KBS a few months after the broadcast aired, alleging libel, fraud, negligent misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. KBS demurred to the complaint, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige sustained the demurrer as to all of Yuin’s claims except the libel cause of action.
Hiroshige later found the complained-of statements—specifically the assertions of “identical” dissertations being submitted, the building being “vacant” and the university being a “ghost school”—were not reasonably susceptible to a defamatory interpretation as a matter of law.
He reasoned that the references to Yuin being vacant or a ghost university were hyperbolic speech “to describe the reporter’s observation of there being no student, teacher, or officials at the time KBS made its visit” and to the extent the statements were factual, they were true in that faculty, staff and students were not present at the time KBS visited the campus.
Falsity Not Proven
The judge acknowledged evidence submitted by Yuin which showed that two of the dissertations which KBS had reported as being “identical” were in fact different, but said that this did not establish that the statement, based on the dissertations available at the time of the broadcast, was false.
On appeal, Yuin argued that “[h]ighlighting the ‘vacant’ status of a school building in a news story about ‘fake degrees’ and ‘degree factories’ suggests the depicted school is not operating in the way a school should in order to be considered a legitimate academic institution” which was “harmful to a legitimate educational institution’s reputation because they question the school’s academic integrity; they suggest the institution does not engage in the actual work of scholarship and teaching.”
Presiding Justice Tricia A. Bigelow, writing for the appellate panel, said she was not persuaded by Yuin’s contentions.
“When considered in the context of the entire broadcast, we do not find the disputed statements to be libelous as a matter of law,” Bigelow said.
She noted that the broadcast begins with a statement that reporters have investigated a school “that is suspected as a degree factory,” and then provides underlying facts to support its opinion, such as the “identical” dissertations, “vacant” status of the campus, and the statements from the graduate.
“The statements that Yuin was a ghost school and was vacant were attention-grabbing or hyperbolic speech to support the broadcast’s conclusion of the questionable quality of coursework from Yuin,” Bigelow reasoned.
Additionally, since the “degree factory” statement was “ ‘cautiously phrased in terms of apparency,’ the statement is less likely to be reasonably understood as a statement of fact rather than opinion,” she said.
Bigelow added that “Yuin takes issue with KBS’s failure to contact Yuin or its founder and provide information about Yuin’s curriculum, coursework or the process by which it evaluates dissertations,” but explained that even if she were to agree that the KBS broadcast was not fully researched, “slanted reporting is not actionable.”
Justices Laurence D. Rubin and Madeleine Flier joined Bigelow in her decision.
Yuin was represented by Charles D. Yu and Andrew Kim. Jiyoung Kym was counsel for KBS.
The case is Yuin University v. Korean Broadcasting System, 11 S.O.S. 5456.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company