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University Did Not Defame Former Law Student, Judge Rules

By Andrew M. Duehren, Crimson Staff Writer

A Massachusetts District Court judge ruled against former Law School student Megon Walker late last month in a lawsuit she brought against the University in 2012 for defamation and breach of contract, seeking injunctive relief.

The ruling, a summary judgment, marks the end of a years-long legal battle that began when Walker sued affiliates of the Law School for damages due to disciplinary actions levied against her after the school’s Administrative Board concluded that she had committed plagiarism in 2009. Walker named the Harvard Corporation, then-Law School Administrative Board chair Lloyd L. Weinreb, and Ellen M. Cosgrove, the dean of students at the Law School, as defendants in the case.

In 2009, Walker, then a third-year student at the Law School, submitted a draft article to the Law School’s Journal of Law and Technology. After editors at the journal noticed a number of directly plagiarized and incorrectly cited passages and notified the dean of students, the school’s Ad Board heard the case. The body then issued a “letter of reprimand” to Walker, allowing her to graduate with her class, but leaving a permanent mark on her transcript.

The permanent mark was at the heart of Walker’s complaint. She not only argued that the Law School broke the procedures set out in its student handbook when it issued the reprimand, but that the plagiarized work did not represent a final submission, and, as such, the mark on her transcript represents defamation.

According to the complaint, filed in 2012, a 2008 job offer to Walker was withdrawn after the firm learned of the reprimand, and Walker has had trouble holding a job since.

In her complaint, Walker claims that the she knew the article she submitted to the journal had incorrect and incomplete citations because her computer suffered from a virus, damaging her work on the draft, but that she told the editors she planned to revise it.

In her decision in favor of Harvard, District Court judge Rya W. Zobel refuted both Walker’s complaint of defamation and breach of contract, citing the Merriam-Webster definition of “submit” and applying an objective reasonableness standard to the Law School Handbook of Academic Policies.

The lawyers who argued for each side of the case did not respond to requests for comment. Weinreb declined to comment and Cosgrove did not respond to a request for comment.

—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at aduehren@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren14.

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