High Court Declines To Hear Ga. Defamation Case

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to review a ruling by Georgia's highest court that makes it easier for high school principals in that state to win defamation suits.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that principals are not public officials, and thus have to clear fewer legal hurdles when trying to win compensation for harm to their character.

Principals, the court ruled, "are removed from the general conduct of government, and are not policymakers at the level intended by'' the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 1964 libel decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.

In that case, the Court ruled that public officials suing for defamation must show that their critics made statements with "actual malice.'' The Court went on to define actual malice as making a statement with "reckless disregard'' for the truth.

In contrast, to win a defamation suit private individuals need only show that the statement in question is false.

While the High Court has extended the actual-malice standard beyond the realm of officeholders to include celebrities and others in the public eye, it also has said that not all public employees belong in the category. However, it has not drawn a bright line showing which government workers are subject to the standard.

State courts are divided on whether principals are public officials under defamation law. The highest courts of Maryland, Mississippi, and Vermont say they are, while an Illinois appellate court has reached the opposite conclusion.

The Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 on April 5 not to review the Georgia case, Ellerbee v. Mills (Case No. 92-1372). Associate Justices Byron R. White and Harry A. Blackmun wanted to hear the case; four votes are needed to grant review.

Teacher's Allegations

In the Georgia case, the state supreme court upheld an award of damages to Dexter Mills, the principal of North Cobb High School in Cobb County. Mr. Mills had sued a former teacher, Dexter Ellerbee, over a series of statements the ex-teacher made that were critical of the principal.

According to court documents, after a unfavorable job evaluation by the principal, Mr. Ellerbee mailed letters, distributed fliers, and bought newspaper advertisements criticizing Mr. Mills's administration of the school.

Among other allegations, he accused the principal of imposing a "reign of terror'' on teachers.

A jury awarded Mr. Mills $2 in nominal and compensatory damages, $26,920 in punitive damages, and $26,920 in legal fees.

The state supreme court said that "under normal circumstances, a principal simply does not have the relationship with government to warrant 'public official' status under New York Times.''

The court added that in some circumstances, principals might become public figures by "inviting attention and comment by thrusting themselves into a controversy.''

One member of the state supreme court concurred in the outcome of the case but wrote that he would put principals in the category of public officials.

"It is more important to permit a robust discussion of our public schools, whether sex education, drug use, or racial insensitivity is the topic, than to permit a principal to recover damages by a lesser standard than 'actual malice,''' said Justice Norman S. Fletcher.

In urging the High Court to review the case, lawyers for the former teacher argued that the Georgia ruling would mean that "any parent who may appear at a local school board meeting to criticize the conduct of the principal can easily be held liable for comments made, even if they were made in good faith.''

Vol. 12, Issue 29

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