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Yuin University v. Korean Broadcasting System

October 5, 2011

YUIN UNIVERSITY, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
KOREAN BROADCASTING SYSTEM, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Ernest M. Hiroshige, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC383449)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bigelow, P. J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Affirmed.

This matter involves a defamation action filed by appellant Yuin University (Yuin) against respondent Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) for a news broadcast which characterized Yuin as a "degree factory." Judgment was entered for KBS on Yuin's libel claim. We affirm the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I. The Broadcast

On September 2, 2007, KBS broadcast a segment on its Sunday news program entitled "Degree Factory Confers Doctorate Degrees even to Persons who Plagiarize."*fn1 The broadcast aired during a controversy in Korea over high profile Koreans lying about their academic credentials. The broadcast identified Yuin in Compton, California as a "suspected . . . degree factory." The reporters visited the university but "found no students, teachers and no officials except a signboard that is the only indication showing that this [i]s a university. [¶] The reason that the school is left vacant in this way can be verified by a graduate who is working as a professor." The former graduate told the reporters that he twice stayed one week in Los Angeles to obtain his degree from Yuin but otherwise never came on campus. The reporter concluded that Yuin "confer[s] degrees to persons who have not properly studied at their place."

The broadcast further reported that 47 people disclosed to the Korean Research Foundation that they received doctorate degrees from Yuin and 40 dissertations were lodged there. The reporters found some of these graduate theses to be identical and others to be of poor quality. With the exception of the first two pages listing different titles and authors, two of the theses were identical even down to the typographical errors found in the table of contents. The authors were identified as Mr. Young Tae Baik, who received a degree from Yuin in the first semester of 2002, and Mr. Young In Byun, who received a degree from Yuin in the second semester of 2002. Both theses were signed by the same advisor professor. When interviewed, Byun explained that it was a simple mistake attributable to his teaching aide who "must have sent a wrong one during the course of putting it together and editing it." Although Byun stated that he requested the Korean Research Foundation to correct the error, KBS noted that no formal steps were taken to do so. The reporters also stated that two other dissertations for a doctorate in theology were identical, including the typographical errors in the footnotes, and another one appeared to have been copied from articles found on the internet. Another thesis for a doctorate degree in oriental medicine was judged to "display[] a shameful level even to be submitted as an undergraduate paper." "There was even a thesis for [a] doctorate degree that is said to abstract contents from Internet portal sites."

The broadcast concluded that "[t]he school in question is virtually a ghost school that cannot be found on any . . . reliable websites including that of the State of California. [¶] Without being controlled, this school that recklessly issued degrees no[t] admissible even in [the] U.S.A. has invited new students by maintaining an admission office in Korea until last year."

II. The Lawsuit

Yuin brought suit against KBS on January 8, 2008, alleging libel, fraud, negligent misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. KBS demurred to the complaint and filed a cross-complaint against Yuin's founder, Henry Yu, for libel. With only the libel claim surviving KBS's demurrers, a bifurcated bench trial on the existence of libel as a matter of law on both the complaint and the cross-complaint was held on March 30, 2010.*fn2 In its trial brief, Yuin took issue with three statements made in KBS's broadcast. First, the statement that Yuin was "vacant" was reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning because it meant that the building was abandoned, but the evidence showed that Yuin was open and had students enrolled. KBS made no investigation of whether Yuin was actually abandoned, did not bother to contact Yuin and did not know who its founder was. Second, the statement that the university was a "ghost school" was libel by innuendo because it was clearly based on the prior assertion that Yuin was vacant. Third, the contention that the dissertations by Baik and Byun were "perfectly identical" was false. Yuin submitted Baik's and Byun's "completely different" dissertations as evidence.

The trial court issued its tentative decision on April 30, 2010, and found "the statements offered by Yuin to support its defamation claim against KBS TV are not reasonably susceptible to a defamatory interpretation as a matter of law." The trial court reasoned that the references to Yuin being vacant or a ghost university were hyperbolic speech "to describe the reporter's observation of there being no student, teacher, or officials at the time KBS made its visit" and therefore was constitutionally protected. To the extent the statements were factual, the statements were true in that there were no students, faculty or staff at the school and it was closed at the time KBS visited the campus.

The trial court noted, "Yuin further contends that another instance of defamation in the broadcast was KBS's contention that certain Ph.D. dissertations were 'perfectly identical' (those authored by Baik and Byun) when the two dissertations are in fact, completely different. Yuin argues that for this reason, KBS's later assertion that Yuin was a 'degree factory' allowing students to become 'fake doctors with unqualified theses' is libel by innuendo. KBS, however, submits evidence in support of its position that the copies on which KBS prepared the report were identical except the first two pages as reported. [Citations.] Although Yuin submits Exhibits 8 and 9 to show that the dissertations are ...


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