Communications law expert says lawsuit against Jim Sterk faces high standards

A communications law professor says the defamation lawsuit against MU Athletic Director Jim Sterk faces an uphill battle. (File)

A professor of communications law on Friday said the lawsuit against University of Missouri Athletic Director Jim Sterk depends in part on what constitutes a public figure.

Sterk faces a defamation lawsuit filed by University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley. The lawsuit follows public comments in which Sterk claimed South Carolina fans jeered and yelled racial epithets at Mizzou basketball players.

Prof. Sandy Davidson said in any defamation lawsuit, the burden of proof is always on the plaintiff, in this case, Staley. If the courts conclude Staley is a private citizen for the purposes of the lawsuit, she will have to prove Sterk spoke negligently, without checking his facts. If the courts consider her a public figure, the standard will be drastically higher. Staley would then have to provide clear and convincing evidence Sterk either intentionally made a false statement or spoke with reckless disregard for the truth.

“The Supreme Court itself has said many deserving plaintiffs will not be able to meet this high standard of proof that we’ve set,” she said.

Davidson said if Sterk produces evidence proving his statement was true, the lawsuit will fail.

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