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Martinsburg College v. Murray

Protecting Consumers’ Right to Free Speech

In 2019, Student Defense represented a Kansas woman who was sued in federal court by a for-profit college eleven days after she expressed her opinion about it online.

Career Skills Institute of West Virginia, which does business as Martinsburg College, is an online, for-profit college that recruits almost exclusively from the military community and has been the subject of public scrutiny regarding its aggressive marketing to recipients of a U.S. Department of Defense grant available to military spouses, known as the Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) Scholarship. In January 2019, Cheryl Murray, a military spouse and active member in the military community, posted on Facebook to express her view that Martinsburg is a “SCAM” school that lures military spouses to enroll by advertising its participation in the MyCAA program. Over 10,700 students have enrolled at Martinsburg using the MyCAA grant, and the number continues to grow.   

Ms. Murray’s post generated numerous responses from the public, many from individuals voicing agreement with her views. In response to those comments, Ms. Murray suggested that individuals with complaints about Martinsburg file complaints with the Department of Defense, but that those without a “reason” to complain should not submit a complaint. 

Less than two weeks after her post, and without any warning, Martinsburg filed a defamation lawsuit against Ms. Murray. Martinsbug’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, sought punitive damages from Ms. Murray, as well as an injunction requiring her to undertake corrective advertising.  Shortly after filing the lawsuit, and prior to Ms. Murray retaining Student Defense as counsel, Martinsburg demanded that Ms. Murray either pay the school at least $250,000 or undertake a series of actions, including personally reaching out to the hundreds of individuals who shared or commented on her post, as well as to students who withdrew from the school, to tell them “in a personalized manner” that her post was not accurate. Martinsburg also demanded that Ms. Murray admit fault, agree to never again communicate online or in person about Martinsburg, and agree to enforcement of a $250,000 penalty for any violation of its terms. (During the course of the litigation, Martinsburg opted to disclose the parties’ settlement communications by filing them with the court and thus making them publicly viewable.)

Student Defense, partnering with Jenner & Block and Stevens & Brand, represented Ms. Murray against Martinsburg’s lawsuit.  On April 5, 2019, Student Defense filed a 30 page motion to strike Martinsburg’s complaint pursuant to a Kansas law enacted to protect citizens from being bullied into silence through so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation” or “SLAPP” lawsuits.  Pursuant to the Kansas “anti-SLAPP” law, known as the Public Speech Protection Act, Ms. Murray, through counsel, requested that the court strike all claims against her as well as award fees, costs and other damages to be paid by Martinsburg. Under the Kansas law, if a party prevails on such a motion, the party is entitled to costs of litigation, including reasonable attorneys fees, as well as any additional relief, including sanctions upon the responding party and its attorneys and law firms, as the court determines necessary to deter repetition of the conduct by others similarly situated.

On May 17, 2019, the parties resolved the matter through a mutually agreeable settlement, the terms of which were different than any proposal disclosed by Martinsburg in its pleadings.

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