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The Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, December 7, 2000

Former Student's Online Accusations Against Professor Prompt Libel Suit

By SCOTT CARLSON

A physics professor at the University of North Dakota has filed a $50,000 libel lawsuit because a former student wrote an online article accusing him of being a pedophile and having odd sexual habits. He is suing the author and the Webmaster and editors of a site that linked to the article.

The professor, John L. Wagner, takes issue with an article titled "Kinky Torrid Romance by Randy Physics Professor," which appeared on a Web site called undnews.com. The article was written by Glenda Miskin, who operates undnews.com. She is also an editor for another site that linked to the story, und-fraud.com.

Ms. Miskin is a former religious-studies student at the university, and her article ostensibly describes her relationship with Mr. Wagner before she was suspended from the university. A disciplinary panel found in May 1999 that she was stalking Mr. Wagner.

Mr. Wagner won a slander suit against Ms. Miskin in July over statements she had made that were similar to the charges in her article. Since last spring, he has had a restraining order forbidding her to contact him.

Mr. Wagner subsequently filed suit in Grand Forks County District Court against the editors of Und-fraud.com for linking to Ms. Miskin's article. At present, the Und-fraud.com site -- which criticizes the university administration on a range of issues -- largely consists of online articles, or links to articles, from the Grand Forks Herald Web site and other Web publications.

Vivian Nelson, who runs Und-fraud.com and is named in the lawsuit, says she doesn't vouch for the validity of Ms. Miskin's story. "I put up links to U.S. News [& World Report]. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything they say. A link is a link. The reader should realize that they are being directed to someplace else."

Mr. Wagner charges in the suit that the article is libelous, emotionally distressing, and meant to destroy his career. He seeks $50,000, plus punitive damages and lawyers' fees. He also seeks to have the article taken offline.

Mr. Wagner previously sued Und-fraud.com's Internet service provider, seeking the removal of articles about him. The suit against the service provider, also filed in a Grand Forks court, was thrown out for jurisdictional reasons.

Ms. Miskin was suspended from the university last year, after Mr. Wagner filed a complaint with university police and the dean of students, according to the Grand Forks Herald. At a public hearing before the university's student-relations committee, according to the Herald, Mr. Wagner produced almost 70 lengthy e-mail messages from Ms. Miskin, which included sexual and romantic allusions.

Ms. Miskin says that she got responses in kind from Mr. Wagner but that she deleted them. Mr. Wagner produced four short responses at the hearing, including one in which he refused an invitation to a dinner date and another asking her not to contact him. At the hearing, however, he did acknowledge that he had talked to Ms. Miskin at home about 10 times, sometimes talking for up to an hour and a half.

A nontraditional student with two teenage children, Ms. Miskin left university housing and now lives in Crookston, Minn., where she attends the University of Minnesota at Crookston.

"If this happens to me, it can happen to anyone," Mr. Wagner says. "Eventually there has to be some laws governing what can and can't be done on the Internet. Congress didn't repeal age-old slander laws when the Internet came into place."

scott.carlson@chronicle.com