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Company withdraws defamation claims against Cornell professor

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

Beverly Enterprises, Inc., a company that operates more than 700 nursing homes nationwide, dropped its defamation claims against a Cornell University labor researcher and professor on Monday. The company had been appealing a federal court's decisions to dismiss its claims.

Beverly sued Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner in federal court last February, claiming she defamed the company when, among other statements, she said that Beverly was "one of the nation's most notorious labor law violators."

Bronfenbrenner said that the news was a "great relief" and that the lawsuit had been "quite an ordeal."

"This was quite an outrageous attack on academic freedom. It was also a very effective use of litigation to try to intimidate scholars. My hope now is that researchers and scholars will realize that if they are sued or threatened by a corporation, that the answer is not to back down but to stand up and fight back."

Bronfenbrenner made her comments about the company at a May 1997 town hall meeting in Pittsburgh sponsored by several congressmen, including Reps. William Coyle, Mike Doyle, Frank Mascars and Lane Evans.

The meeting was called to drum up support for proposed federal legislation that would withdraw government contracts from businesses that violate labor laws.

A federal judge dismissed Beverly Enterprises, Inc. v. Bronfenbrenner last May, saying that Bronfenbrenner's statements were made as part of a legislative proceeding and therefore protected by legislative immunity. However, the company refiled its claim against the professor after she said on National Public Radio that she "told the truth."

The judge dismissed that claim also.

Beverly then appealed the dismissals of both lawsuits to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Company officials dropped their appeals Monday, saying in a statement: "This case involved a very simple but important principle: if you distort the truth and damage someone's reputation, you should be held accountable. Unfortunately, it was difficult to apply that principle in this case because the waters were muddied by peripheral circumstances.

"We continue to believe in this principle, however, and will be alert if other situations arise in which it could be applied more directly. For now, we are satisfied with Dr. Bronfenbrenner's admissions regarding the deficiencies in the scope and quality of her research."

Bronfenbrenner refuted the company's statement, saying: "I made no such admission."

Nelson Roth, Cornell associate university counsel who represented Bronfenbrenner, said: "Apart from the issues of legislative immunity, apart from the issues of academic freedom and apart from the ability of the public to discuss and receive information on matters of public concern, I believe this lawsuit was baseless on the fact alone that Beverly Enterprises, Inc., was suing Professor Bronfenbrenner for defamation based on her protected opinion.

"We can all look at a set of facts and draw different conclusions. If every time an academic gave their opinion on an issue of public concern or controversy, she or he were sued, it would freeze public debate on these issues," Roth said. "What other motivation did Beverly Enterprises have other than to silence Professor Bronfenbrenner?"

Steve Vtzner, press secretary for Congressman Evans, agreed, saying: "This is something that should have been done a long time ago. This was a frivolous suit of intimidation and an attack on academic freedom."

Beverly officials referred questions about the decision to drop the claims to its attorneys. A call placed to one of the attorneys was not returned.

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