by Andrew Hough
Salford University, in Manchester, England, charges students up to £9,000 ($13,950) a year in tuition fees and axed 60 posts last year. University officials were accused by a judge of abusing the High Court’s processes in actions against part-time lecturer Dr. Gary Duke. Senior officials authorized legal action against the former part-timer over a website which compared university managers to Hizbollah and a “bureaucratic dictatorship.”
Yesterday, it emerged Salford University had lost its three-year fight against Dr. Duke (pictured left), from Eccles, Salford, Greater Manchester, after a High Court judge rejected its claim it had been libelled.
The university defended the case, which is thought to have cost at least £100,000 ($155,000) and included American court action to force internet company WordPress to disclose details of its users.
The comments appeared on an internet blog, which invited anonymous contributions and encouraged readers to air complaints about the operations at the university.
The blog stated that Hizbollah, the militant group, was more “accountable and transparent” than “the current ruling regime at Salford.” It also described vice-chancellor Professor Martin Hall as a “vehement human rights activist and social justice believer” and his deputy Dr. Adrian Graves as “secretive.”
Dr. Duke, 52, was suspended for allegedly bullying and harassing members of staff was later fired in 2009 after a series of spoof newsletters and posters were handed out on campus criticizing university policies.
The former sociology and international studies part-time lecturer and union activist, who lost a wrongful dismissal action against the university, was first charged with libel in March 2010.
But Justice Eady last week dismissed the case, ruling that references to the university itself were incidental, and it was up to the named individuals to launch legal action. He said if any “defamatory” statements were made they appeared to be directed towards Professor Hall and Dr. Graves, in the way their “responsibilities have been discharged.”
“I have come to the conclusion that any adverse comments about the University are, in context, really incidental to the attacks made upon the conduct attributed to the two individuals,” he ruled.
“I regard it as wholly unreal, and indeed an abuse of the court’s process, for these proceedings to continue on the basis that the only claimant is the University when the conduct to be examined … would be that of Dr. Graves and Professor Hall.
“I am satisfied that in this instance the litigation is not worth pursuing if its sole objective is to protect the reputation of the University … or to obtagary duke”in an injunction to prevent bloggers criticising Professor Hall and Dr. Graves.”
He added: “I cannot see that a real or substantive tort has been perpetrated against the University, nor do I foresee any tangible advantage being achieved by way of its reputation being effectively vindicated (even assuming that it has been damaged).”
Dr. Duke, who had represented himself, told an earlier hearing last month that he had “considerable respect” for the university’s high standards and achievements and that criticisms were instead directed towards administrators.
Last night, the father of three, who has since become a secondary school teacher, criticized the university’s attempts to stifle “freedom of expression” and called for the resignations of the senior officials.
“My major concern is the huge amount of public money that has been used for what is, obstinately, a libel action against the vice chancellor and the deputy vice chancellor,” said Dr. Duke, who worked part-time as an £11,000 ($17,050)-a-year lecturer at Salford University’s business school.
“It begs serious questions. I do not agree that I libelled them. They are public servants and they should be open to public criticism.” He has applied for the university to pay his legal costs.
In 2011, during his failed employment tribunal hearing he had claimed he was fired for suggesting a member of staff acquired her job because she was in a “close personal relationship” with her manager.
In a statement, a university spokesman said they were considering an appeal but declined to say who authorized the suit. He added: “The University will protect its reputation and those of its members against malicious and abusive claims. The University feels that it is an important point of principle to safeguard its reputation when employees are subjected to unjustified and unsubstantiated criticism. The University is not prepared to discuss the legal advice it received.”