On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.
Approved for Publication April 7, 1995
Before Judges Shebell, Skillman and Kleiner. The opinion by the court was delivered by Skillman, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman
This is a defamation action against Princeton University and certain of its administrators based on their statements to the media regarding an investigation into the alleged improper use of University property by University employees.
Plaintiff was employed by Princeton as the manager of plumbing and heating in its Facilities Department. After receiving an anonymous letter in the spring of 1989 alleging employee thefts and improper use of University property, the Princeton administration commenced an investigation of the Facilities Department. When plaintiff became one of the targets of this investigation, Princeton temporarily suspended him with pay. After several Princeton administrators met with plaintiff to discuss the allegations of wrongdoing against him, plaintiff submitted a letter of resignation on August 21, 1989.
Princeton's investigation of the Facilities Department and the resignations of plaintiff and two other supervisors spawned various rumors within the University community. Indeed, plaintiff characterized these rumors as "rampant." Anticipating inquiries from the press, Princeton prepared a written statement, subsequently published in the September 17, 1989 issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin ("Weekly Bulletin"), a University owned publication distributed to members of the faculty and administration, which stated:
An investigation over the summer into improper use of University resources in the Facilities Department has resulted in evidence that University equipment and personnel, or positions of responsibility, were used for personal gain.
"We discovered, for example, that University equipment had been sent off campus to work on personal projects," said Vice President for Facilities Eugene J. McPartland. The potential losses uncovered so far are in the range of $10,000, McPartland estimated.
Three members of the Facilities staff have submitted their resignations. The investigation, which is ongoing, was requested by McPartland and is being conducted by the University's Internal Audit Office and the Department of Public Safety.
Subsequently, two independent University newspapers published stories about the investigation and resignations which are the focus of plaintiff's defamation claims. Even prior to publication of the University's statement, a reporter for the Princeton Alumni Weekly ("Alumni Weekly"), a publication distributed to Princeton alumni, learned of Princeton's investigation into improprieties in the Facilities Department and began to prepare a story. A "source" in the Facilities Department told the reporter that "three supervisors in the department had resigned after the investigation revealed that the three men had used University equipment improperly." The reporter then met with defendant Eugene McPartland, the University Vice President for Facilities, who declined to reveal the details of the investigation or to confirm the identities of the persons involved. However, McPartland did indicate that the losses were in the range of $10,000. The reporter also spoke with defendant Justin Harmon, the University's Director of Communications and Publications, who indicated that a statement about the matter would be printed shortly in the Weekly Bulletin. The reporter also met with a "senior university official," who discussed the investigation on a "not for attribution" basis. This official confirmed information previously obtained by the reporter regarding the identities of the persons who had resigned, including plaintiff. Shortly thereafter, the reporter received a copy of the Weekly Bulletin statement which he also used in his article.
The article in the Alumni Weekly, which appeared on October 11, 1989, read in pertinent part:
Three senior administrators in Princeton's grounds and building maintenance office, including the director, have resigned after an investigation into alleged abuses of their office's human and material resources. In a prepared statement, the university said that the three men -- later identified as Anthony F. Cifelli, the director; Dominick J. Gallo, the manager of plumbing and heating; and Raymond A. Lumio, a project manager -- had used "university equipment and personnel, or positions of responsibility ... for personal gain." Because the investigation that uncovered these alleged abuses is continuing, further resignations or revelations are possible.
Eugene J. McPartland, who oversees Princeton's grounds and building maintenance operations as the vice president for facilities, estimated that the losses from this purported malfeasance were "in the range of $10,000." McPartland declined to comment on any of the specific allegations against the three men, although in the official statement he said that "we discovered, for example, that university equipment had been sent off-campus to work on personal projects." In ...