States find teachers to be public officials


Two courts hold public school instructors to actual malice standard





TENNESSEE, CONNECTICUT — In two recent court rulings, a public high school teacher and a professor at a public university were determined to be public figures.

In a libel suit, if the person who filed the suit is determined to be a public figure by the judge, he or she then has to prove that the defendant printed the defamatory material with actual malice, meaning the defendant either had a knowledge that the material was false, or he or she printed the material with a reckless disregard for the truth.

In Tennessee, the state court of appeals affirmed in Campbell v. Times Printing Co., C.A. No.03A01-96-11-CV-00364 (Tenn. Ct. App. 03/20/97), the dismissal of a libel claim by a public school teacher, finding that the teacher’s job made him a public official.

The teacher, Kenneth Campbell, sued the Times Printing Company because of an article that, according to Campbell, implied he had a criminal record.

The court determined that although they could not be more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution requires in determining what makes a public official, they can be less restrictive.

“Therefore, states can reach lower into the governmental hierarchy than that which is required by the United States Constitution and lesser officers or employees can be designated ‘public officials’,” wrote Judge Don McMurray.

The court relied heavily on previous Tennessee cases that had determined a junior social worker, a government purchasing agent and a high school principal to be public officials.

In Connecticut, an appellate court issued a similar ruling in the libel suit of a public university professor in Abdelsayed v. Narumanchi 668 A.2nd 378 (Conn. App. 1995).

The professor, who taught accounting at Southern Connecticut State University, filed suit against a colleague for accusing him of stealing ideas for courses. The professor demanded a retraction, and when he did not get one, he sued for libel.

Because the court determined the professor to be a public figure, he had to prove actual malice, which the court felt he did.

The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but certiorari was denied in October of 1996.


Fall 1997, reports