Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter
Dear Legal Mailbag:
It is early in the school year, but I have already been targeted on social media by a totally unreasonable parent. As the principal of a middle school, I was involved in the investigation and discipline of a student accused of bullying. The evidence was pretty clear, and we determined that the student had engaged in bullying conduct. We held the required meeting with the perpetrator and his father to discuss what we are doing to prevent further acts of bullying by the student, including a one-day in-school suspension, counseling, and a warning of further severe consequences if the student persists in such bullying conduct.
I thought that we were pretty reasonable in imposing consequences, and I am eager to give this student a fresh start after he serves the in-school suspension. However, the student’s father was fit to be tied. He claimed that our investigation was a sham and that the other student was lying about the relevant events. He stormed out of the meeting, muttering “we will see about that . . . .”
Over the last several days, people have shared with me a number of nasty posts about me by this father on social media. I understand that parents have the right to criticize public servants such as myself, but what are my rights? This parent has gone over the top with statements like “that idiot principal is incompetent” and “let’s petition the board of education to fire the principal for his biased investigation.” I take my reputation seriously, and I must have some right to make this father stop making such unfair and inaccurate comments. Can I sue the father for defamation? Can I at least tell my side of the story?
Ready to Punch Back
Legal Mailbag is sympathetic to your situation, but on the limited facts you have provided, Legal Mailbag concludes that you do not have a viable claim for defamation.
Defamation is a tort under law, a civil wrong that can be the subject of a claim and a basis for recovering damages. However, to recover on a defamation claim, one must establish the following facts:
- The allegedly defamatory statement must be an assertion of fact.
- The statement must be shared with others (“publication”).
- That factual assertion must be false.
- That false factual assertion must harm one’s reputation.
For teachers and administrators in Connecticut, there is an additional hurdle – the Connecticut Supreme Court held in Kelly v. Bonney, 221 Conn. 549 (1992), that teachers (and by extension administrators) are “public officials” for defamation purposes. As a consequence, recovery in defamation for teachers and administrators is subject to an additional requirement: the false statement that harms reputation must be made with malice or reckless disregard for the truth.
In your case, we do not even get to that question. Looking at the statements you quote, Legal Mailbag does not see any assertions of fact. Rather, the upsetting statements by the father are statements of opinion. Given that a defamation claim must be based on an assertion of fact that is false, such expressions of opinion cannot be the basis for a defamation claim. In other words, this parent is free to opine publicly that you are “incompetent,” no matter how wrong he is in that judgment.
Legal Mailbag understands your desire to set the public record straight as to the quality of your investigation and the appropriateness of your conclusion that this student engaged in bullying behavior. However, as former President Jimmy Carter once famously said, “there are many things in life that are not fair.” Your inability to respond directly to parent criticisms is one of them. Whatever information you gather in the course of your investigation would be personally identifiable student information, which generally cannot be disclosed without parent consent, as provided by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
That said, you remain free to communicate with parents and others in the school community about district procedures and the safeguards that assure that your investigations are conducted fairly. While it is often best not to take the bait and engage in such public discussion, Legal Mailbag defers to you on whether you want to do so. As long as you do not refer to specific students or situations that would be personally identifiable, you remain free to assure the public that your procedures are fair and appropriate.