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UCSB Asst. Professor Sues Journalist for Defamation Over Reportings About Title IX Violations

by Hoyer Law Group, PLLC | May 19, 2021 | Firm News

The University of California, Santa Barbara Daily Nexus recently covered the filing of our client’s defamation case. Click here or continue below to read the full article.

UCSB Asst. Professor Sues Journalist for Defamation Over Reportings About Title IX Violations

July 11, 2020 at 12:54 pm by Katherine Swartz and Max Abrams

UC Santa Barbara assistant professor Danielle Kurin is suing an investigative journalist in an $18 million defamation case, after the journalist published a series of blog posts that detail allegations of sexual misconduct and Title IX violations against Kurin and her then-husband.

In the lawsuit filed last month, Kurin alleges that journalist Michael Balter knowingly made defamatory, libelous and slanderous statements in two blog posts in which he reported that Kurin’s former husband and archeological partner, Enmanuel Gomez Choque, allegedly sexually harassed and sexually assaulted multiple students during several summer field expeditions in Peru.

Balter has written for numerous publications, such as Science Magazine, The Verge and the Columbia Journalism Review, and has taught journalism at New York University, Boston University and The City College of New York.

Kurin, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, is scheduled to apply for tenure at UCSB in September, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states that Balter, through his blog posts and several posts from his Twitter account, has interfered with Kurin’s career prospects and tenure application.

In his first blog post about Kurin and Gomez Choque in February, Balter reported that Gomez Choque sexually harassed students from UCSB and other universities during a summer field school in Peru 2015, according to Title IX documents; he added that Kurin then retaliated against students involved in a subsequent 2016 Title IX case filed against Gomez Choque and Kurin.

To report this, Balter obtained a copy of a 2016 Title IX case filed against both Gomez Choque and Kurin under the California Public Records Act and interviewed numerous witnesses of Gomez Choque and Kurin’s alleged actions at the field school.

Kurin reached a settlement with UCSB over the Title IX investigation in 2016, according to David Scher, Kurin’s lawyer in the lawsuit. University spokesperson Andrea Estrada declined to comment because the university “is not a party to that lawsuit.” Casey Walsh, an anthropology professor and chair of the department, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about both Kurin’s Title IX investigation and the lawsuit.

“Dr. Kurin is not a perfect individual. She made some mistakes a few years ago and has apologized for them, acknowledged them, took responsibility for her actions and completed a settlement with the university that everybody was happy with,” Scher said.

Scher confirmed that Kurin was charged with “sustained charges” by the Title IX office in 2016, meaning that the claims of misconduct by both Kurin and Gomez Choque were found to be substantiated.

According to Balter’s blog posts, UCSB placed Kurin on a three-year suspension from Spring 2016 to Fall 2019. While on suspension, Kurin ran a summer field school in Peru with Gomez Choque and during the 2018 program, Gomez Choque allegedly sexually assaulted a student, Balter reported.

Estrada declined to confirm whether Kurin had been placed on suspension. The lawsuit states that between 2016 and 2018, Kurin “engaged in the UCSB disciplinary process and utilizing the proper forums available to her as a professor, she amicably settled the matter with UCSB in March 2018.”

Scher said that Kurin was on leave, which he says she took “of her own account partly,” between 2016 and 2019, “as a way to resolve the case so that the university could be satisfied that she was going to do what she needed to do to come back to the university in good standing.”

Kurin’s lawsuit alleges that in reporting about the Title IX investigation and Kurin’s suspension, “Balter acted with overt malice, hatred, and ill will towards Kurin.”

“He’s trying to destroy her. He’s trying to prevent her from getting tenure. That’s what he’s doing. That is why we filed this lawsuit,” Scher told the Nexus over Zoom.

“It’s not all false,” he said, referring to Balter’s reporting, “but a lot of it is dramatically exaggerated and we cannot take it anymore. We’re tired of it. He just needs to stop and go away so that Dr. Kurin can go before the tenure board truthfully, honestly, with actual facts.”

The lawsuit states that Balter’s blogs “repeatedly demand that Kurin not be granted tenure and that she otherwise be banned from any kind of gainful employment.” The lawsuit points to instances from Balter’s past as evidence of a pattern of misconduct, including negative Amazon reviews of a book Balter wrote in 2009 called “The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk–An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization,” which centered around an archaeological dig. The lawsuit says the book focuses more on “who [the archeologists] hooked up with and when.”

The lawsuit describes Balter’s dismissal from his former job at Science Magazine, alleging it was for “misconduct” and a “serious breach of trust,” both of which Balter denied on his blog, on social media and when speaking to the Nexus.

Balter said his dismissal from Science Magazine was due to a “longstanding mutual breakdown of trust” and that Kurin “cherry-picked negative things about my book.”

“She was basically trying to paint me out as being somebody who maybe knew nothing about archaeology and who was constantly getting fired from jobs that I actually really was not fired from,” Balter said.

One part of this case centers around Balter’s wording in his reporting, in which he frequently describes Kurin being found “guilty” of retaliation by a Title IX investigation.

Balter said that he used the word “guilty” in the colloquial sense, not a legal sense, while Scher said that Balter’s use of the word implies that Kurin was convicted of a crime.

“Title IX charged her [with] sustained charges. Sustaining charges does not mean guilty,” but instead means that the claims in the Title IX case against both Gomez Choque and Kurin were found to be substantiated, Scher said.

Balter said he stands by his use of the word “guilty” and won’t retract his blog posts.

“I’m not apologizing for the word guilty …  And I think that they can’t win the case on that; in the colloquial sense of the word, she was found guilty of misconduct by Title IX,” Balter said.

Estrada said that “the University investigates all reports of alleged misconduct by faculty” but could not comment on specific cases.

The lawsuit cites Balter’s social media posts as evidence that he acted with overt malice against Kurin and knowingly published false statements against her, such as reporting that Kurin attempted to cover up Gomez Choque’s alleged misconduct and refused to cooperate with the Title IX investigation. In those posts, Balter called on UCSB and the anthropology department to not give Kurin tenure, according to the lawsuit.

Balter argues he has a First Amendment right to post his opinions on his blog and social media, including those encouraging UCSB to not give Kurin tenure.

“I have said openly and publicly that I do not believe Danielle Kurin should be given tenure, because I think that her misconduct shows that she cannot be trusted around students,” Balter said. “I’m entitled to have an opinion under the First Amendment about what the result of all this should be.”

Balter said he carries no malice toward Kurin because he had never heard of her before he began reporting on her.

“I haven’t made up any stories about Danielle Kurin. I haven’t said anything about her that I don’t firmly believe to be true based on my own reporting,” Balter said.

Balter has until Aug. 15 to respond to the lawsuit, less than a month before Kurin’s tenure review is scheduled to begin. Scher said he plans to update the lawsuit with more examples of Balter’s alleged overt malice toward Kurin in an amended filing.

Balter said he is looking for a First Amendment lawyer to take on his case, but said he is confident that his reporting and social media posts are protected under the law. He has also created a GoFundMe to cover upcoming legal expenses and has since raised over $3,700 as of July 11.

“I reported the truth. I reported it faithfully. I reported it in good faith. I am not guilty of defamation by a long shot,” he said.

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