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Harvard Did Not Defame Student, Court Finds
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Due to the truth defense, Harvard did not commit defamation against a former student accused of plagiarism.

Summary: A federal judge ruled that Harvard Law did not commit defamation by noting a student’s plagiarism on her transcript.

According to the National Law Journal, a federal judge ruled that Harvard Law did not defame a graduate of the law school by reprimanding her for plagiarism. Judge Rya Zobel of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts granted summary judgment in the suit, which was filed on behalf of Megon Walker in 2012. Walker sued not only the university, but also law school administrators and two former classmates.


Walker was a member of Harvard Law’s class of 2009. She alleged that the school committed a breach of contract by supposedly failing to follow its own disciplinary procedures during an investigation into the plagiarism of a law review article. She added that the school’s notation of a reprimand on her transcript was defamatory, and ended up costing her a job with a prestigious law firm, according to FindLaw.

However, Judge Zobel saw things differently. She found that there was no evidence that Harvard Law drifted from its policies, and that the school’s actions did not meet the definition of defamation. In the opinion, she wrote, “Because the plaintiff committed plagiarism within the meaning of Harvard’s Student Handbook, the publications of fact she alleges libelous are true and she cannot recover.” Further, the judge found that the school did not act with actual malice because the school administrators believed that the allegations against Walker were true.

The Department of Education recently found that Harvard mismanaged sexual assault allegations.

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Walker accused the school of causing her to spend three years unemployed. The complaint read, “Each time a firm invites plaintiff to interview, or expresses great interest in her as a prospective employee, her employment application is declined when plaintiff discloses the reprimand.”

Walker had worked as a summer associate with one firm, which extended her a job offer. However, upon finding out about the reprimand, the firm rescinded the offer. Walker was employed by a different law firm for about three months, but was terminated from that job when the reprimand was discovered.

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According to Walker’s LinkedIn page, she has worked at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. as an attorney since 2012.

The incident occurred during the 2009 spring semester. Walker was a member of Harvard’s Journal of Law and Technology, and submitted an article that student editors discovered contained large portions of previously published articles. Walker had not included proper citations for the excerpts. According to Walker, her computer was infected with a virus just before the deadline, and her draft of the article was incomplete. She complained that the student editors, the students named in the lawsuit, did not allow her to complete the draft after she explained what happened.

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Harvard’s administrative board then investigated, and held a hearing, during which they found Walker committed plagiarism. Instead of being suspended, she had a formal reprimand placed on her transcript, and was allowed to graduate with her class that May.

Although Walker argued that the article was a work in progress, and thus not a submission, Judge Zobel saw otherwise. “There is simply no situation where [Harvard Law School] could have reasonably suspected a third-year member of a law journal to believe that handing over a draft article to that journal for editing prior to publication was not ‘submitting’ the work within the meaning of the handbook.”

Would you hire Walker at a law firm if you saw the reprimand for plagiarism on her transcript?

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In addition, the judge rejected Walker’s arguments that the disciplinary hearing process was adversarial; that she was wrongly denied the chance to cross-examine witnesses; and that the process was ultimately unfair. The damages sought in the complaint were emotional distress, the removal of the reprimand, breach of contract, and defamation.

Source: National Law Journal

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