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Professor's Web posting at center of libel suit

Former student's paper, now taken off Oakland University's site, said a Michigan company "committed crimes," appeals court says.

When Donald Mayer placed a student's essay on Oakland University's Web site as an example for others taking his graduate-level business class, he probably never thought he'd end up in court as a result.

But thanks to Google's all-encompassing reach, Mayer and the university were named as defendants in a libel lawsuit that the Michigan Appeals Court decided earlier this month.

Donald Mayer
Oakland University

The student's essay, the product of a class assignment, alleged ethical and legal lapses at his former employer, an industrial automation firm called Ben-Tech. An executive at that company had urged student Eric Kaczor to purloin "all relevant materials, such as software and documentation," from Siemens and bring them to his new job at Ben-Tech, the paper asserted.

A decade ago, that discussion of business mores might have begun and ended inside Mayer's classroom on the Rochester, Mich., campus of Oakland University. But because Mayer posted the essay on the school's Web site, and because the site was open to the entire Internet, Google's voracious spiders soon discovered it.

After redacting Kaczor's name, Mayer posted the rest of the essay in January 2002 as an example for other students in his current class. Two months later, Ben-Tech demanded that Oakland University remove the paper and offer a retraction.

The school deleted it but refused to give a retraction, prompting Ben-Tech to file a lawsuit claiming that the Web publishing was libelous and harmful--not least because it was available through an ordinary Internet search on the company's name.

The Michigan Appeals Court says the lawsuit can proceed. "We conclude that Kaczor's paper, at minimum, strongly suggested, and more realistically, stated, that plaintiffs committed crimes by encouraging Kaczor to leave Siemens and bring with him proprietary information belonging to Siemens, in violation of a nondisclosure agreement," a panel of judges ruled Jan. 11.

A lower court had granted Mayer, the professor, summary judgment in his favor. But the appeals court overturned that decision, saying Mayer had not read the paper closely before posting it--arguably a serious lapse, "given Mayer's education as a lawyer, his position as a professor of business law and that he teaches defamation in the course at issue."

"We hoped that this died and went away, but Google brought it up again, and it becomes public again," said a representative of Ben-Tech, who declined further comment. "It will just never end." Mayer did not immediately respond to an interview request Tuesday.