Yesterday afternoon’s “Breaking News” alert from The Legal Intelligencer was certainly intriguing:
A former University of Pittsburgh professor who engaged in an affair with a research assistant can continue with his defamation case against the assistant over claims she affected his ability to get another teaching job and sent a picture of his penis to his wife and 37 associates.
I can’t say that I’m particularly interested in university gossip, but this headline piqued my interest in the relationship between the civil justice system and university life — see, e.g., my posts on the scandalous efforts by fraternities to avoid lawsuits, on the misguided doctrine of “academic abstention,” and on universities trying to avoid anti-discrimination law — and I’ve represented both plaintiffs and defendants in lawsuits arising from tortious conduct at universities.Thus, after reading the story in the Legal, I had to pull the Western District of Pennsylvania’s Order and the Complaint in Wang v. Lee.
In many ways, a close inspection of the case makes it less interesting than it seems it would be. There are a variety of salacious allegations, and one party’s oddly specific wish to be reborn as a mermaid, but those details are mere gossip in a situation that seems to have had rather severe consequences personally and professionally for all involved. The court’s opinion denying summary judgment — thus allowing the professor’s defamation lawsuit against the grad student to go forward– is rather humdrum from a legal perspective; most of the claims are plainly sound if the facts alleged are proven, like Invasion of Privacy (largely for the picture), Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings (for filing an allegedly frivolous protection from abuse petition in Washington State), and Defamation (for suggesting in the email that the professor was threatening her). I have my doubts about the viability of a negligence claim in the midst of a romantic disputes, but that’s an issue for another day.
Nonetheless, two issues jumped out at me.
First, I was glad to see that the university setting did not become an issue in the case. In far too many circumstances, like with the doctrine of “academic abstention,” colleges and universities are treated like separate sovereigns entitled to dispense justice however they see fit. I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the court had dismissed the case on the mistaken belief that these types of issues are better left to university “justice,” even though universities aren’t separate nations. They are service providers and landlords. They’re ill-equipped to handle most criminal issues and civil disputes, and, as economic actors trying to attract customers, they have the perverse incentive to either quash complaints or grossly overreact to them, because those are the most effective ways to sweep problems under the rug and out of sight from potential students.
Second, without repeating all the details here (you can see the complaint yourself), as alleged by the (professor/male) plaintiff, the (graduate student/female) defendant’s alleged conduct would seem to fall within the scope of every “revenge porn” statute I’ve ever seen. The version pending in the Pennsylvania Senate, for example, makes it a misdemeanor of the second degree to “expos[e] a photograph, film, videotape or similar recording of the identifiable image of an intimate partner who is nude or explicitly engaged in a sexual act to the view of a third party for no legitimate purpose and with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm the person depicted.” (Other misdemeanors of the second degree in Pennsylvania include simple assault and bigamy. They’re punishable by up to two years in prison.) There are ample stereotypes about “revenge porn,” and this situation seems to break every one of them.
If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the civil justice system as an avenue for recourse for alleged victims of “revenge porn.”*
*The term “revenge porn” is apparently controversial, but I am unaware of an adequate alternative term.