Salford threatens student with writ

Alleged online 'defamation' of senior staff draws libel warning. Melanie Newman reports

March 18, 2010

Lawyers acting for the University of Salford have threatened to sue one of its students for libel in connection with a website that criticises the university's senior management team.

The student, Damien Shannon, who recently stood for election as president of the students' union, has denied responsibility for the site, which the university's solicitors say is "an example of defamation in its most cowardly form".

In a letter to Mr Shannon, who is in the final year of a BSc in acoustics, Halliwells solicitors say the university has reason to believe he is one of the creators of the site and the author of a number of libellous comments.

It demands that he confirm that he is the creator and reveal the identity of all other contributors, and warns that if he does not comply, it will ask the site's host to disclose the identities of the contributors and commence action for damages.

The letter says senior management, including the vice-chancellor, Martin Hall, have been "the subject of malicious, defamatory and personal attacks from a small but vocal group of lecturers and students" including Mr Shannon.

It also accuses the student of posting libellous comments on the vice-chancellor's blog.

In a letter of response, Mr Shannon denies creating or contributing to the site, on which commentators write anonymously or under pseudonyms.

He adds: "Professor Hall has encouraged students (including myself) to email him with their thoughts on the university since taking up his tenure on 1 August 2009.

"He cannot credibly invite commentary on the one hand and then complain when some of it is critical."

A Salford spokesman said the university was unable to comment on the action because it was "in the hands of the lawyers".

The row follows Salford's sacking last year of a part-time academic and PhD student, Gary Duke, after he admitted writing and distributing a series of newsletters lampooning senior managers.

Some of the allegations made in those newsletters are repeated on the website.

Mr Duke's unfair dismissal claim will be heard in an employment tribunal later this year.

The latest events at Salford also follow the conviction earlier this year of an academic at Kingston University. Howard Fredrics was found guilty in January of harassing Kingston's vice-chancellor, Sir Peter Scott, via a website.

In the US, debate on students' online rights has been raging for some time, stoked by high-profile expulsions for intemperate comments on social networking sites and blogs. Last year, a nursing student at the University of Louisville sued the institution after being expelled for posts on the MySpace site in which she discussed patients, abortion and gun rights.

She claimed that her free-speech rights had been violated, and a federal judge overturned the expulsion.

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