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Teachers Are 'Public Officials,' Conn. Court Rules

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The Connecticut Supreme Court last week issued a ruling that could make it much tougher for teachers in the state to prove they have been slandered or libeled.

In overturning a $10,000 damage award to a junior-high-school teacher who had been accused of physically and verbally abusing students, the court ruled that teachers are "public officials.'' That designation will make it more difficult for a teacher to prove character defamation because the burden of proof in such cases is greater for public officials than for private citizens.

"Robust and wide-open debate concerning the conduct of the teachers in the schools of this state is a matter of great public importance,'' Justice Robert J. Callahan wrote. "In the classroom, teachers are not mere functionaries. Rather, they conceive and apply both policy and procedure.''

The Connecticut decision brings to four the number of states in which courts have ruled that teachers are public officials. Arizona, Illinois, and Oklahoma are the others.

In contrast, judges in four other states--California, Maine, Texas, and Virginia--have said teachers are not public figures.

Former Science Teacher

The Connecticut case involves John J. Kelley, a former science teacher in Groton. Although the state board of education found some substantiation for allegations that Mr. Kelley has improperly touched and verbally harassed students, it declined to take away his license.

Mr. Kelley sued one student who brought charges against him, parents of several others who also accused him of harassment, and members of the Groton school board.

A superior-court jury ordered two of the eight defendants--a school-board member who gave a copy of the complaint to a local newspaper, and a parent who tried to talk another potential witness into testifying against the teacher--to pay Mr. Kelley a total of $10,000 in damages.

Before an appeals court could review the decision, the state's highest court took up the case and last week overturned the judgment and the monetary award.

Thomas G. Moukawsher, who represented most of the defendants, said the ruling will encourage more open debate about schools, including the quality of teachers.

"One of the problems in school-related matters is that the public is so afraid of the threat of lawsuits that they won't speak up,'' Mr. Moukawsher said. "This will provide some comfort to children, parents, and boards of education who are trying to confront, rather than conceal, the problems of teachers in their systems.''

Neither Mr. Kelley nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

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