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Monday December 7, 1998

Vermont Law School Settles
Dispute Over Comments

By Amy Williams, Staff Writer

FREMONT - Vermont Law School has settled a dispute with a former student who threatened to sue the institution over disparaging comments made about her by a professor.

In a February 1998 newspaper column, the professor, Michael A. Mello, said the student, Sheila Iverson, was "a person with a racial chip always on her shoulder the size of the Lincoln Memorial." Ms. Iverson is black.

Both the law school and Ms. Iverson, who graduated this year, were forbidden under the settlement to discuss its terms. A local newspaper reported that the school had paid Ms. Iverson $70,000.

The wrangle began in the fall of 1997, when Ms. Iverson wrote a column for the institution's student newspaper, The Forum, in which she described a Halloween incident in 1995, when she was a first-year student. Two white students, she wrote, had come to a class dressed as O. J. Simpson and his lawyer Johnnie Cochran. In her column, Ms. Iverson argued that the two students' actions echoed racist, 19th-century blackface minstrel shows.

A few weeks after her column appeared, the newspaper's editorial board dismissed her from her voluntary position as the paper's assistant advertising manager, saying she had performed poorly in her job. The members of the editorial board included Jon Minkoff, one of the students whom Ms. Iverson had criticized in her article. She filed a racial-discrimination complaint, which was settled through mediation this past spring.

Mr. Mello, who is Mr. Minkoff's faculty adviser, wrote a column in February in the Rutland Herald, saying that Ms. Iverson's article had unfairly portrayed Mr. Minkoff as a racist. Mr. Mello also attacked Ms. Iverson, saying she had "an unsettling history of making charges of racism that possess no apparent basis in fact." His comments prompted Ms. Iverson's threat of a lawsuit.

In a joint statement by the institution and Ms. Iverson, the school's dean, L. Kinvin Wroth, said that Mr. Mello's statements were "not accurate." Ms. Iverson said in an interview that the complaint against the student paper's editors had been the first she had ever filed.

After the settlement was announced, Mr. Mello reiterated his criticisms of the student. "I objected to the law school purporting to settle on my behalf, and they went ahead and did it anyway," he said. "I thought as a policy decision it was both cowardly and foolish, precisely because it will encourage future shakedowns, and that's exactly what this was, in my view."

Told of Mr. Mello's response, Ms. Iverson said: "I will consider pursuing legal action if I get defamed again. I need to think about it."


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