[cross-posted at The Gate]

Defamation can be either written (libel) or spoken (slander) and is generally defined as false statements of fact that harm another's reputation. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that public officials must prove "actual malice" in order to win a defamation lawsuit(New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254). Actual malice is defined as publication despite knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was false. Truth always is a defense against a defamation lawsuit unless there is malicious intent. Also, written or spoken communication that is readily understood to be a satire, parody, or humorously intended situation generally is not found to be defamatory because the audience understands that the writing/speech is not intended to be a statement of fact.

The New York Times principle was later extended to "public figures" (see Curtis Pub. Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967). A public figure is someone who commands "a substantial amount of public interest by his position alone or has thrust himself by purposeful activity into the vortex of an important public controversy" (19 A.L.R.5th 1).

So are school administrators considered to be public figures for purposes of a defamation lawsuit? Well, as is usually the case with the law, it depends.

Courts have ruled that principals ARE public figures in

  • New York (Jee v. New York Post Co., Inc., 671 N.Y.S.2d 920 (1998));
  • Maryland (Kapiloff v. Dunn, 343 A.2d 251 (1975)); and
  • Minnesota (Johnson v. Robbinsdale Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 281, 827 F.Supp. 1439 (1993)).

Courts have ruled that principals ARE NOT public figures in

  • Georgia (Ellerbee v. Mills, 262 Ga. 516 (1992));
  • Illinois (Stevens v. Tillman, 568 F.Supp. 289 (1983); );
  • Indiana (Beeching v. Levee, 764 N.E.2d 669 (2002));
  • Ohio (E. Canton Edn. Assn. v. McIntosh, 709 N.E.2d 468 (1999)); and
  • South Carolina (assistant principal; Goodwin v. Kennedy, 347 S.C. 30 (2001));

Superintendents and assistant superintendents generally have been found by courts to be public figures (see, e.g., Di Bernardo v. Tonawanda Pub. Corp., 499 N.Y.S.2d 553 (1986)); Kefgen v. Davidson, 617 N.W.2d 351 (2000); and Beck v. Lone Star Broadcasting, Co., 970 S.W.2d 610 (1998)).

So will the former principal of Hickory High School in Hermitage, Pennsylvania win his lawsuit against the four students who created parody MySpace profiles of him? Only if the court determines that

  1. the principal is not a public figure, and
  2. the MySpace profiles could be reasonably interpreted by visitors as statements of fact rather than parodies, satire, or humor.

Given past case law, #1 could go either way but I'm guessing that #2 will be pretty hard to prove. It will be interesting to see what happens.

[Thanks, Wesley Fryer, for bringing this case to my attention!]

References

19 American Law Reports (5th) 1. Who is "public figure" for purposes of defamation action.