Dear Legal Mailbag:
Some irate parents are taking the concept of shooting the messenger to new heights. As a middle school principal, I certainly had nothing to do with the Governor’s decision to mandate that students and district employees wear masks in our schools. But that has not stopped some parents from going on social media to blast me and my staff for the “harm” that the mask mandate has done to their children.
Last week, a staff member showed me a social media post by a parent of a student in her class. Even though I have never met this parent, she excoriated me in her post for my “fascist” requirement that her child wear a mask. To make matters worse, a number of parents “liked” the post.
As if that weren’t bad enough, this week another parent is on social media ranting against the mask mandate, and again I was targeted. This parent’s posts are particularly troubling, because she has labeled me a “child abuser” for requiring that her son wear a mask in school. I am in the middle of my career and I may want to find another job at some point in the future, and such false allegations could pop up if a prospective employer “Googles” my name. Can I sue her for defamation and force her to take down the posts?
Mad as Hell
Legal Mailbag conveys heartfelt sympathy to you for having to read these irresponsible posts. We all have a significant interest in our reputations, and false statements that harm one’s reputation may be actionable. Unfortunately, as a principal, your rights under the law of defamation are limited, but you do have recourse in certain situations, as described below.
We start with an overview of the law of defamation. The first element of a claim for defamation is an assertion of fact. Expressions of opinion, no matter how uncivil the statement may be, are not defamatory. Accordingly, a parent is free to express her view that you are not an effective principal (or worse, e.g., “rude” or “incompetent”), and such expressions of opinion do not give rise to a defamation claim.
The second element of a defamation claim is that the assertion of fact must be untrue. If a statement about a person is true, that person does not have a claim for defamation; as you may well have heard, “truth is a defense.” Conversely, an assertion of fact that is untrue may be cause for a defamation claim if the false statement harms one’s reputation. However, if a defamation claim is brought by a public official, there is a further requirement – that the false factual statement be made with malice or with reckless disregard for the truth. The United States Supreme Court established this additional requirement in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) out of concern that defamation claims could stifle criticism and comment on the performance of public officials, important rights we have under the First Amendment. To make matters worse, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that teachers are public officials under the law of defamation in Connecticut, which of course makes you, a principal, a public official as well. Kelly v. Bonney (Conn. 1992).
Given these legal developments, public officials have a tough row to hoe in bringing complaints for defamation. But sometimes it is appropriate and necessary to bring such claims to hold people accountable for their irresponsible, false statements. A parent who is disappointed by a grade a teacher gives her child, for example, would be liable in defamation for accusing the teacher of abusing drugs if that claim is false and there was no basis for the claim. In your case, you are rightfully concerned about the parent’s careless use of the term “child abuser.” Accusing one of being a “child abuser” is not an expression of opinion, but rather a statement of fact. Accordingly, given the facts you have described, you would have a valid claim of defamation.
That said, litigation is expensive and time-consuming. Legal Mailbag suggests that you confer with legal counsel (given that Legal Mailbag is not your legal advisor) to determine the best course of action in your case. Perhaps it would be best for you (or your lawyer) to write to the parent with your concern and explain that she must take the post down because it could be interpreted as a false factual statement. If the parent promptly takes the post down (ideally with a retraction and apology), that may be sufficient. If the parent refuses to take down the post, Legal Mailbag suggests that you, in consultation with district administration and legal counsel, decide whether the situation warrants further action on your part.
Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.