Elmhurst College professor suing college, administrators and student journalists

 
 
Updated 3/11/2019 6:00 PM
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A longtime Elmhurst College music business professor is suing the school, individual administrators and student journalists after a series of stories in the student newspaper alleged he was under investigation for possible Title IX violations.

Timothy Hays filed the suit Friday in DuPage County. His attorney, Travis Life, declined to comment Monday, saying it was "too early" to do so.

Hays claims in the lawsuit that he was defamed in stories published by The Leader, the student newspaper, on Nov. 20, Dec. 4 and Feb. 19.

English professor Ron Wiginton, who serves as The Leader's faculty adviser, said Monday that he was expecting the lawsuit and warned the newspaper staff to expect it, too, but was unaware one had been filed.

"I know what the story said and I can understand why he might be suing," Wiginton said. "Defamation and libel suits have a preponderance that must prove that the story was false. The only defense for the media is if the story is true. I'm not exactly sure what he's alleging is false about the story."

The first story, published in November under the headline "Director of music business faces Title IX investigation," quotes April Edwards, dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs, confirming the probe and saying Hays had been reprimanded.

Edwards also cited the "investigative process" after a seating chart used by Hays was leaked to the paper. The chart, according to the lawsuit and Leader story, identified students by physical appearance, race and other characteristics.

Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 is a federal law that prohibits federally funded schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, which can include acts of sexual harassment.

"The administration told my newspaper that he was under investigation. The article even quotes the administration, so my newspaper has never reported that he violated Title IX," Wiginton said. "We reported that the administration was investigating him for a possible Title IX violation. And as far as I know, that's true."

Wiginton said he received only a "brief email" from Hays before the story was published.

"Tim Hays asked me not to run the story, asked me to kill it. He asked me, in an email, if I could stop the printing of it," Wiginton said. "I wrote him back and said, 'No, I could not,' and that it was legal. My job as adviser is to prevent the paper from doing anything illegal or unethical."

College spokeswoman Desiree Chen said officials cannot comment because they have not fully reviewed the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Hays was removed from his music business class for the remainder of the semester after he spoke with his class about the violation of his privacy. The Leader published a follow-up story about his removal Dec. 4.

"Due to the Leader's defamatory story about Dr. Hays and Elmhurst College's failure to address the situation with The Leader, Dr. Hays suffers from extreme stress causing various health problems including panic attacks," the lawsuit states. "Dr. Hays is forced to seek medical attention for these conditions."

On Feb. 19, the paper published an account of a 2007 graduate who claimed Hays cornered her and looked down her shirt while she was a student in 2004. The story quotes the alumna, who said she immediately brought her complaint to college officials but was told nothing could be done.

Hays' suit claims those allegations were made with malice and were published with "reckless disregard for the truth."

Hays is seeking actual and punitive damages from each defendant named in the suit.

Wiginton said The Leader will seek counsel from the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

"The plaintiff in this case probably has very little recourse, except litigation because, as far as I know, the story is true," Wiginton said. "If he's claiming the story is false, that's an investigation we will have to conduct, and I'm sure the school will."

The suit is first scheduled to be heard June 6 in Courtroom 2016 at the county judicial center, 505 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton. A second date of Aug. 26 has also been set for case management.

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