Law & Courts

Educators’ Libel Suit Against Group Fails

By John Gehring — April 28, 2004 3 min read
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A legal-advocacy group did not act with malice when it alleged in a press release that two North Carolina educators had violated a student’s rights, even though the student had made up her story about being forced to remove a reference to Jesus from a class presentation, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 6th grade student at C.B. Eller Elementary School in Elkin, N.C., identified in court papers as “HD,” admitted she had also lied about a claim that her teacher had required her to read the word “damn” aloud in class from an assigned book.

Before the girl’s admission, however, lawyers with the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based organization that often litigates religious-freedom cases, had demanded in a letter to the superintendent of the Wilkes County, N.C., district that the teacher and the school principal apologize to the girl over the alleged infringement of her First Amendment rights. Rutherford also issued a press release about the November 1999 allegations.

Once the girl admitted she had lied, Rutherford quickly issued a press release acknowledging the admission and apologizing for its earlier press release.

Principal Vickie C. Hugger and teacher Carolyn Settle of Eller Elementary sued the Rutherford Institute and two of its officials, President John W. Whitehead and chief litigation counsel Steven H. Aden, in a North Carolina trial court, alleging defamation and infliction of emotional distress.

The case was removed to the federal district court in Statesville, N.C., where a judge ruled that while the defendants had committed libel under North Carolina law, the principal and the teacher could not recover damages under the First Amendment because they were public officials and the Rutherford Institute did not act with actual malice, the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court for libel cases involving such officials.

In an April 12 opinion, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled unanimously for the Rutherford defendants.

No Reckless Disregard

The incident began when HD’s mother got in touch with the Rutherford Institute to report that the teacher had forced her daughter to erase the letters WWJD—a familiar abbreviation for “What Would Jesus Do?"—from a classroom presentation. The mother also reported her daughter’s claim that the teacher had made her read the word “damn” aloud in class.

Rutherford staff members interviewed the mother and student, then sent a letter to the Wilkes County school district stating that legal action would be pursued if a written apology was not sent to the student and copies sent to all district employees.

Meanwhile, the district’s lawyer investigated the claims and told the Rutherford Institute that he doubted the veracity of the student’s allegations.

The institute again interviewed the mother and student, who insisted the girl was not lying. The two provided the names of several purported witnesses to the incidents. Rutherford tried to reach the witnesses, but did not hear back from any of them. On Nov. 16, 1999, the institute distributed a press release about the case and posted it on its Web site. The release identified the elementary school, but did not name the teacher or the principal.

The 4th Circuit panel declined to decide whether the principal and the teacher were public officials for libel-law purposes. But it found that the alleged conduct discussed in the Rutherford Institute’s press release related to a matter of public concern, and thus the plaintiffs could recover damages only if the institute had acted with actual malice. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a finding of actual malice requires that the publisher of a statement knew it was false or acted with a “reckless disregard” for whether it was true or false.

The appeals court noted that Rutherford had issued the press release only after following up on the school district lawyer’s concerns.

“Although a reasonable person may have waited to hear from one of the corroborating witnesses before issuing the press release,” the court said, the Rutherford Institute’s “actions are not those of one acting with reckless disregard for the truth.”

John M. Logsdon, the lawyer for the two educators, said he was disappointed with the approach the 4th Circuit panel took, saying it “cleverly danced around the constitutional issue” of whether the teacher and principal were public officials under libel law. He said the plaintiffs were reviewing their options for appealing the case.

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