Law & Courts

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

By Mark Walsh — May 15, 2007 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

See Also

See other stories on education issues in California. See data on California’s public school system.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Opinion What the Law Says About Parents' Rights Over Schooling
The rallying cry of “parental freedom” perpetuated racial segregation, writes a legal scholar. So why would we let it dictate curriculum?
Joshua Weishart
5 min read
People hold signs and chant during a meeting of the North Allegheny School District school board regarding the district's mask policy, at at North Allegheny Senior High School in McCandless, Pa., on Aug. 25, 2021. A growing number of school board members across the U.S. are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests over contentious issues including masks in schools.
People at a school board meeting in late August protest the mask policy set by the North Allegheny school district in Western Pennsylvania.
Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
Law & Courts Justice Dept. to Pay $127.5M to Parkland Massacre Victims' Families
Attorneys for 16 of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland said they had reached a confidential monetary settlement.
Terry Spencer, Miami Herald
2 min read
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Law & Courts Can Public Money Go to Religious Schools? A Divisive Supreme Court Case Awaits
The justices will weigh Maine's exclusion of religious schools from its "tuitioning" program for students from towns without high schools.
13 min read
The Carson family pictured outside Bangor Christian School in Bangor, Maine on Nov. 5, 2021.
Institute for Justice senior attorney Michael E. Bindas, left, accompanies Amy and David Carson who flank their daughter, Olivia, outside Bangor Christian Schools in Maine in early November. The Carsons are one of two families seeking to make religious schools eligible for Maine's tuition program for students from towns without high schools.
Linda Coan O’Kresik for Education Week
Law & Courts Students Expelled, Suspended for 'Slavery' Petition Sue District
The lawsuit claims the officials violated the students’ First Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+