Ohio high court rules principals not public officials

Decision will make it easier for public school principals to win libel suits

\nOHIO - The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on May 15 that public\nschool principals are neither "public officials" nor\n"public figures" for the purposes of defamation law.\n

The case began with the March 1995 firing of John McIntosh\nfrom his position as principal of East Canton High School. After\nhis termination, McIntosh brought suit against the East Canton\nEducation Association, alleging that a statement about him read\nby a school official at a board meeting was false and damaging\nto his reputation. The board argued that McIntosh was a public\nofficial, and as such, he must prove the statement was made with\n"actual malice" in order to recover defamation-related\ndamages.

Courts have held in many cases that public officials are either\npersons who exercise substantial control in governmental affairs\nor persons whose positions would invite scrutiny even in the absence\nof a controversy.

Justice Andrew Douglas wrote in the opinion in East Canton\nEducation Association v. McIntosh, 709 N.E.2d 468, (Ohio 1999),\nthat McIntosh did not meet the standards for public official status.\nHe noted that McIntosh also fell short of the qualifications\nof a public figure outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court because\nhe did not occupy a position of pervasive power or influence,\ndid not thrust himself into the forefront of a public controversy\nand did not invoke the media as a sounding board for airing his\ngrievances. Public figures must prove actual malice as well.

In dissent, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer wrote that a public\nschool principal--particularly at the high school level--is a\nfigure widely covered and discussed. He emphasized that this is\nespecially true in a city such as East Canton, where only one\nhigh school serves the entire community.

Instead, Moyer reasoned that the decision of whether or not\na school principal is considered a public official should be determined\non a case-by-case basis, with respect to the particular circumstances\nsurrounding the alleged defamation.

The court's decision is somewhat surprising, considering that\nin 1986, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a public school superintendent\nis a public official. The new ruling does not even discuss that\nearlier case. Instead, the court draws its reasoning on an Illinois\nstate court case and a Georgia state court decision, both of which\nheld that the relationship between school principals and the government\nis too remote for principals to be considered public officials.\n

Fall 1999, reports