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Univ. considering action against Harper’s Magazine

Brandeis outside counsel looking into legal action in response to erroneous article

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: Front Page

Brandeis is considering what legal action it could take against Harper’s Magazine, which published an erroneous article about the effect the university’s capital projects over the past 10 years could have had on its current financial crisis, President Jehuda Reinharz announced in an e-mail message to the faculty last week.

“This is in no way a ‘sour grapes’ reaction to an unfavorable story about Brandeis,” Reinharz wrote. “Once we determined that there was a lack of journalistic ethics in the manner in which the magazine conducted its research and reporting, we aggressively fought against the publication of this article.”

The article, entitled “Voodoo Academics: Brandeis University’s hard lesson in the real economy,” contained many incorrect statistics about the university and included many unattributed quotations.

Reinharz wrote in the e-mail that while Christopher Beha informed the university that he was writing an article about capital projects at Brandeis, he never contacted the administration for interviews or comments, and that the university only learned that the article had come to fruition when the university was contacted by a fact checker at Harper’s Magazine.

“What is important here is that the basic rules of journalism insist that media outlets must make attempts to interview sources for a particular story before any story is moved to the ‘fact checking’ phase,” Reinharz wrote. “This was not done by the reporter for Harper’s.”

Beha did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

During the fact checking process, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Peter French spoke with Beha and “corrected the inaccuracies…and provided additional information and background,” Reinharz wrote.

“None of the information French provided in these conversations was used in the article,” he wrote.

Due to the factual inaccuracies in the article and Harper’s refusal to correct the errors once they were informed of them, Reinharz said the university’s administration “feel[s] that some affirmative course of action must be taken to protect the reputation of Brandeis.”

While Reinharz did not say exactly what sort of legal action the university is looking into, and outside counsel for the university Tom Reilly did not respond to requests for comment by press time, any suit by the university for libel could be difficult to prove.

In a libel suit the university would be required to prove not only that facts printed in the Harper’s article were incorrect, but that they were written with an “intention of malice.”

In his e-mail to the faculty, Reinharz wrote that Beha mentioned to Vice President for Capital Projects Dan Feldman that his interest in the university stemmed from a conversation he had had with his aunt, Ann Beha. Ann Beha is the founder of Beha & Associates, which Reinharz described as “an architectural firm that has unsuccessfully pursued business with Brandeis.”

If there were a libel suit, the university could possibly use this fact in an attempt to prove malicious intent.

Despite the hardships a legal battle could bring, however, Reinharz wrote, “I will not allow anyone to denigrate our administration, faculty, students, and alumni.”