A University of Notre Dame sociology professor, Tamara Kay, is suing a college newspaper for defamation after the students wrote articles on her advocacy for abortion rights. The Irish Rover is an independent, conservative publication and the students are standing by their coverage.
A review of the complaint raises more questions than answers on the basis for this rare lawsuit against student journalists. Indeed, the editors have doubled down and this week they ran a column declaring “Professor Kay’s allegations against the Rover are entirely false.” Their lawyers are reportedly preparing an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, claiming that Kay is seeking to intimidate student journalists. These motions are used by media because, as the Reporters Committee on the Freedom of the Press explained, “SLAPPs have become an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.” Yet, it is rare to see an academic accused of such harassing lawsuits.
Professor Kay has every right to protect her reputation through defamation actions and such lawsuits can protect against harassment and abuse by the media. The problem is that Kay is alleging statements as false that other journalists have found to be true or matters of interpretation. The complaint does not appear particularly compelling.
The complaint focuses on two Rover articles, including one that quoted Kay’s comments at a panel and a second article on comments Kay made at an event hosted by the Notre Dame College Democrats in March. However, National Review reviewed audio and other evidence and confirmed much of what the student journalists alleged with slight (but hardly defamatory) differences.
For example, the complaint raises an October 2022 article written by student editor Joe DeReuil titled “Keough School Professor Offers Abortion Access to Students.” However, the complaint fails to cite any specific examples of false statements included in the piece. A headline, however, can be the basis for a defamation action.
The panel event itself was “Post-Roe America: Making Intersectional Feminist Sense of Abortion Bans,” the participants discussed how Indiana’s new pro-life law, S.B. 1, would be harmful to “marginalized groups.”
Kay is quoted as telling the Rover that “For me, abortion is a policy issue. And yes, my view runs afoul of Church teaching, but in other areas, my positions are perfectly aligned [with the Church].” However, Kay responded to the Rover by accusing the students of lying and insisting there was “absolutely no interview” with the Rover. However, DeReuil then produced a recording in which he reportedly clearly identifies himself as the editor of the Rover before asking her several questions.
Kay also advocated abortion services through her Twitter account on which she identified herself as “Dr. Tamara Kay — Notre Dame abortion rights expert.” She also offered to “help as a private citizen if you have issues w access or cost. DM me [sic].”
She also reportedly posted a sign on her office door on campus that said, “This is a SAFE SPACE to get help and information on ALL Healthcare issues and access — confidentially with care and compassion.” The National Review reported that Kay’s non-Notre Dame email included information on how to reach her and told students to look for “a letter ‘J'” as a signal for helping with abortions: “Look for the ‘J’, Spread the word to students!”
Notably, the National Review reported that, after the Rover article, Kay changed her Twitter display name and “removed the signs from her office door and deleted her tweets about helping students access abortion.”
The lawsuit raises allegedly false statements made in a March 2023 article from the Rover written by student journalist Luke Thompson: “Tamara Kay Explains Herself to Notre Dame Democrats.”
Kay objects that she was falsely accused of “posting offers to procure abortion pills on her office door.” However, the National Review quotes a Notre Dame spokesman stating that in the case of the sign
“a reasonable person could understand Professor Kay to be giving medical advice (on becoming ‘unpregnant’ by taking abortion pills without knowing any details about an individual student’s health). This seemed unwise from both the perspective of faculty members and students.”
The recordings and media coverage also show that Kay made statements that seemed to track the views alleged by the student journalists even if there was some variation on the words.
It seems rather thin soup to sustain a defamation lawsuit against students or to support the claim that they are liable for her alleged “suffer[ing] mentally and emotionally and experienced and continues to experience mental anguish and fear for her safety.” She is also seeking punitive damages.
Notably, New York magazine did a full report on the controversy in an article in The Cut titled “The Holy War Against One Pro-Abortion-Rights Professor: Tamara Kay has endured a vicious harassment campaign that she says Notre Dame won’t help curb.” The story features a sign with the J featured on her door. The article declares that the newspaper “falsely claimed Kay was working ‘to bring abortion to Notre Dame students’ and distorted her comments at the September panel.”
I understand that Dr. Kay objects to the interpretation given her remarks and the headline “Keough School Professor Offers Abortion Access to Students.” However, the question is whether it goes beyond interpretation and warrants a defamation action. That will soon be the issue before the court as the student journalists seek a dismissal as an abusive effort to harass their newspaper.
Here is the complaint: Kay v. The Irish Rover