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BOZEMAN — Three Montana State University students are suing two professors for libel, alleging that an art professor's painting depicting them as "foolish weasels" was displayed at school prior to a hearing at which the students were exonerated of accusations that they cheated on an architecture assignment given by the artist's wife.

The case stems from MSU architecture professor Joanne Noel's accusations that six of her students cheated on an assignment in late 2004. They were exonerated by the school's conduct board after a 10-hour hearing.

However, before the hearing, a painting by MSU art professor emeritus Francis Noel, titled "Six foolish weasels and two puffed up suits," was displayed in Haynes Hall, which houses the architecture and art programs.

The painting included the words "BUSTED" and "ARCHITORTURE."

Assistant Attorney General John Melcher, who is representing the Noels, said the lawsuit lacks merit and called it a "free-speech issue."

"A person without inside information on the controversy would not have the ability to know that it was connected," said Melcher, who was assigned the case because both defendants are state employees.

The students' attorney, Christopher Williams, said there is no First Amendment protection "for publicly humiliating students with confidential or erroneous information."

The lawsuit includes letters exchanged between Francis Noel and Jerry Bancroft, dean of MSU's College of Arts and Architecture, in which Bancroft asked Noel to take the painting down.

"If my child was involved in this case and this painting came out, especially during the (misconduct) appeal process, I would be angry and disillusioned by the university," Bancroft wrote.

Francis Noel characterized the conduct board's hearing, after which they decided not to punish the students, "a travesty." He defended the image as "a work of art and, as with all such images, it is open to interpretation."

The three students suing, William Burrows Jr., Kent Molin and Meghan Scott, still attend MSU, Williams said. Their lawsuit, filed earlier this year, seeks unspecified damages for libel, malice, invasion of privacy and negligence.

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