Published Online: May 15, 2007
Published in Print: May 16, 2007, as Calif. Appeals Court Rules School Officials Didn’t Libel Principal

Law Update

Calif. Appeals Court Rules School Officials Didn’t Libel Principal

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School principals don’t often sue their bosses for libel and invasion of privacy, but that’s just what a former Los Angeles high school principal did when he was publicly criticized by his supervisors for his handling of a spate of violence at his school.

A state appeals court in California last month upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the principal’s suit.

Norman K. Morrow was the principal of Jefferson High School in the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District in the spring of 2005 when the school faced campus brawls involving students on three different days. One brawl stemmed from tensions between some 100 black and Latino students, according to court papers.

In the wake of the third violent incident, then-Los Angeles schools Superintendent Roy Romer and Rowena LaGrosa, an administrator who was Mr. Morrow’s direct supervisor, addressed the violence in interviews with the Los Angeles Times.

An article in the newspaper said that Mr. Romer had “voiced a need for stronger leadership at Jefferson,” and that “the principal’s handling of the recent violence had ‘accelerated’ a decision to replace him.”

Ms. LaGrosa told the paper that Mr. Morrow would be replaced at Jefferson High by July 1, 2005, six months before he planned to retire. The principal was removed and given a central-office job. He retired in January 2006.

In a lawsuit filed in state court, Mr. Morrow said the administrators’ statements to the press had invaded his privacy and defamed him.

He argued that their public discussion of his handling of the school violence amounted to a “performance evaluation” that should have been conducted in a closed session of the school board.

Mr. Morrow’s libel claim contended that Mr. Romer’s statement that stronger leadership was needed at Jefferson High implicitly disparaged the principal’s leadership ability.

The suit argued that the administrators had no basis for removing Mr. Morrow as principal, and that he ended up retiring from the district seven years earlier that he had planned, which had financial consequences for him.

A state trial court dismissed Mr. Morrow’s suit, and on April 20, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal ruled unanimously for the district officials.

The appeals court said the comments by Mr. Romer and Ms. LaGrosa amounted to “constitutionally privileged comment by a public officer in the proper discharge of an official duty.”

The court also rejected Mr. Morrow’s arguments that disclosures about his retirement invaded his privacy.

Mr. Romer and Ms. LaGrosa “only mentioned Morrow’s retirement plans to the extent they directly concerned the school district’s solution to the school violence,” the appeals court said. “There is no evidence that any gratuitous details were offered to the press and certainly none were published.”

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