November 24, 2017

Alumnus Sues Cornell Over Article Newly Surfaced in Digital Archive

By Andrew Albanese

  • Newly-surfaced article reports student theft
  • Does digitization represent republication?
  • Will libraries respond to requests to expunge records?

A Cornell University alumnus has sued the university over a decades-old article now available in the university library’s digital collections—and searchable on Internet. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, Kevin Vanginderen, a Cornell graduate and now a lawyer in California, filed a $1 million lawsuit against the University in San Diego County Superior Court in October, 2007, claiming libel, and raising potentially thorny questions about the resurgence of old information in the new world of digital archiving.

In court papers, Vanginderen claimed the trouble began when he Googled his name and found that back issues of the Cornell Chronicle, owned by the university’s press office, had been digitally archived in the library and were now searchable online—including an article about his involvement in campus thefts. The Cornell Daily Sun reported that, after Vangidneren’s requests to have the article removed were not heeded, he filed suit, citing "the difference between having the article sit in the basement of a dusty library and being posted on the front door of the library." Cornell, meanwhile, counters that the article is not defamatory and that the statute of limitations for defamation has run out because the article was published long ago–and the online Chronicle archive, scans of the original editions, does not constitute republication.

The case, however, hints at deeper issues for libraries and publishers in their quest to digitize backfiles. "I think it will not slow the pace of digitization," Lolly Gasaway, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at the University of North Carolina, told LJ. "But libraries and other agencies that publish digital information may find themselves having to deal with requests to expunge certain records. My guess is that libraries won’t do this in advance but only in response to a particular request."