Slander suit reinstated against Boeheim and Syracuse University
by James O’Connor
New York State’s highest court has reinstated a slander lawsuit against Syracuse University and its nationally known basketball coach Jim Boeheim.
In a decision handed down Monday, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that they could not conclude that statements made by Boeheim were purely opinion.
The lawsuit stems from allegations brought forth by two men in 2011 claiming that then-assistant coach Bernie Fine had molested them as children. In their claim, Mike Lang and Robert Davis, both former ball boys for Syracuse University’s basketball team, allege that Boeheim slandered them by referring to them as liars out for money.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, ruling Boeheim’s comments were not assertions of fact but opinions protected from defamation lawsuits. A midlevel court agreed.
Monday’s ruling, written by Justice Jenny Rivera, states that the lower court erred in its decision calling Boeheim’s statements pure opinion.
“The context further suggests to the reader that Boeheim spoke with authority, and that his statements were based on facts,” Rivera wrote. “Boeheim was a well-respected, exalted member of the university and the Syracuse community-at-large, and as head coach of the team appeared well placed to have information about the charges.”
Lang and Davis, who are stepbrothers, claimed that Fine used his position and authority within the University’s basketball program to gain access to and control over them for the purpose of sexual molestation.
According to the plaintiffs, from the time they were children in the 1980s, Fine lured them with opportunities to attend games and assist the team as ball boys. For years the sexual abuse continued on and off campus, Lang and Davis allege, as well as on team trips away from the university campus. The stepbrothers also claim that the molestation occurred in Fine’s home and in his car.
Davis alleged that the molestation continued for almost two decades, into adulthood.
The plaintiffs didn’t bring their allegations public until after the Penn State scandal. The allegations against Fine rocked the tight-knit Syracuse University community and Boeheim spoke out in defense of Fine, his longtime friend.
In statements to reporters, Boeheim reasserted his support for Fine and his denial of any knowledge of the claimed events described by Davis. He also called Lang and Davis Liars, stating that their allegations were financially motivated.
Rivera wrote that the court must consider three factors as to whether something is opinion: whether the words have precise meaning and are readily understood, whether the statements can be proved true or false, and whether in the broader context and circumstances they signal to readers or listeners whether they are likely to constitute fact or opinion.
The next step will be discovery before the case is heard before a trial court.