It was a routine story for the University of Massachusetts Boston student newspaper that came straight out of the police blotter.
Campus security officers were looking for an unidentified man who had allegedly taken photos of women around the university. The newspaper published a short story about the search with a photo under the headline “Have You Seen This Man?”
Now, six years later, that story is at the heart of a free press battle and defamation case that has reached the state’s highest court and could upend longstanding journalism protections.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has stepped in to defend the former student editor and the college paper’s right to publish the story, deeming the case to be in the public’s interest. Media attorneys are penning amicus briefs and warning that — if the plaintiff succeeds — this case could severely hamper how journalists do their jobs and inform the public.
“I fear it would have a severe chilling effect on the news media to report on police investigations,” said Jeff Pyle, an attorney with Prince Lobel Tye, who has represented the New York Times and the Boston Globe.
At issue is whether Mass Media, the university’s independent student newspaper, overstepped by publishing the police report and photo.
Jon Butcher, a former security engineer at UMass Boston’s information technology department and the man that police were looking for, argued that the story defamed him and damaged his relationship with his boss, forcing him to eventually leave UMass Boston. Butcher denied taking any photos of women, and after police searched his phone, they mostly found pictures of people riding the T or on the bus, according to court documents.
Police never arrested or charged Butcher with a crime. Butcher, who is representing himself in the case, could not be reached for comment.
A Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed with Butcher and concluded that because police never issued a search warrant or made an arrest, the information in the police report wasn’t protected and the newspaper was liable. That decision has been appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which is likely to hear the case this fall.
That a student newspaper would now be at the center of one of the most important statewide fights over press freedoms in the past two decades is unusual, Pyle said.
“It’s not the normal type of case you would see in the defamation case book,” he said.
But, he noted, “The student press is not immune from claims of defamation . . . Student journalism is important journalism and can ruffle feathers the same way.”
The UMass Boston weekly school newspaper has generally focused on campus life issues, such as student parking fees. When the paper has engaged in First Amendment fights, it has usually been against university staff or administrators who are withholding information or, as they did this past spring, removing and covering over newspapers in a public area during prospective student visits, because of an embarrassing front-page article.
“We don’t get into a lot of conflicts,” said Kelsey Hale, 21, a rising senior and editor-in-chief of the paper.
The reporters at the paper are careful about what they publish, Hale said. But they don’t back away from controversial stories or chasing public records to get the news. For example, last school year, when university administrators were vague about a chemical incident in the new dorms, the reporters found the fire department reports that indicated a student was allegedly trying to manufacture drugs in his room and set off the alarm, drawing police and other emergency personnel in hazardous material suits.
“Our writers stayed up until midnight on a Friday to make sure it was accurate,” Hale said. “We worked very hard to publish factual information.”
Even though the case in front of the Massachusetts high court predates Hale’s time at UMass Boston, she said the police blotters remain an important source of information, and the newspaper receives them on a weekly basis.
Police incident logs are crucial for all reporters, David Kravitz, a deputy state solicitor in Healey’s office argued in court documents filed earlier this month.
Police provide media organizations with reports of unidentified people of interest or those involved in suspicious activities frequently, including in stabbings or robberies, Kravitz said in court documents.
“Publications of this kind serve important public interests: They alert residents to reports of possible wrongdoing in their neighborhoods, they inform residents of the activities of local law enforcement agencies, and they may assist law enforcement in completing investigations of suspected wrongdoing,” Kravitz wrote.
As long as the news report is a “fair and accurate” reflection of the police log, it should be protected, Kravitz said. Requiring independent verification by the media, he wrote, would be a heavy burden.
But Richard Peltz-Steele, a professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law, said the media should be more careful about simply reporting from police reports.
The police can be wrong, and in the internet age that incorrect information about a person can live on and do damage long after the case is closed, Peltz-Steele said.
“I think 25 years ago this would have been a clean victory for the press,” he said. “Today I see courts more willing to parse the facts and give plaintiffs a chance . . . We as a society went massively protective of media in the name of a free press. But today the capacity of mass media to injure reputation and cause real suffering has reached unprecedented heights.”
If the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upholds the lower court decision, the defamation case against the newspaper’s editor will go to trial.
Cady Vishniac, 33, the UMass newspaper editor who was part of the team responsible for the publication of the original story in 2013, said she understands the damage that can be done by news articles.
She was the only student editor who Butcher was able to serve with court documents and her name is now linked to this defamation case.
Vishniac now lives in Michigan, has gotten a graduate degree in creative writing and is no longer in journalism. She said she worries about potential employers and colleagues searching her on the Internet and finding this defamation lawsuit.
“I am sure that there are greater issues at stake here,” Vishniac said. “I just don’t for the life of me understand how it got this far.”