A Former High School Coach Can Sue Parents for Defamation
John T. Wolohan
Go to any youth sporting event today and you will probably see, in addition to the athletes, a group of parents hovering around the sidelines and team benches. While the majority of these parents are well meaning and can provide a much-needed helping hand to the coaches, some are there to either challenge coaches' decisions regarding playing time or question referees' calls.
Abusive behavior by spectators that has entered the collective consciousness — and the court system — has largely involved physical violence. Verbal abuse of coaches and officials, on the other hand, has gone relatively unnoticed by the media, the courts and state legislatures. Although at least 22 states currently have laws protecting coaches and officials from physical assault, not a single state offers any kind of redress for verbal abuse, and coaches and officials usually are forced to simply ignore it. However, one recent case got so out of hand that it led to multiple school board hearings, a firing and, finally, an ongoing defamation lawsuit.
At issue in O'Connor v. Burningham [2007 UT 58; 2007 Utah LEXIS 139] was the verbal abuse heaped on Michael O'Connor (pictured) beginning in the fall of 2003, when he was the girls' basketball coach at Lehi (Utah) High School. It was then that Michelle Harrison, one of the elite basketball players in the country, enrolled at Lehi, spurring a group of parents to launch a persistent and multifaceted campaign of complaints against O'Connor — apparently because they were upset with the attention and playing time Harrison received at the expense of their own daughters.
In an attempt to have O'Connor removed from his coaching duties, the parents took their grievances to the school principal and other school administrators. Not only did they allege that O'Connor extended preferential treatment to Harrison, they also criticized his coaching demeanor and accused him of misusing school money.
School administrators determined that O'Connor had done nothing wrong. Dissatisfied, the parents took their complaints to a school board meeting in the summer of 2004. O'Connor was dismissed as coach a few months later.
The parents' words on the field and in public meetings that led to his dismissal prompted O'Connor to sue them for defamation. In order to succeed under the theory of defamation, O'Connor would have to prove that the statements made by the parents: a) were false, b) were made to a third party, and c) caused him to suffer some loss of reputation or other damages.
In support of this claim, O'Connor argued that the parents, jealous of Harrison or upset over their children's relative dearth of playing time, made false allegations to the school board against him that damaged his professional reputation and cost him his coaching job. The parents, meanwhile, argued that their statements were protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan [376 U.S. 254 (1964)], citing the First Amendment, established the rule that a public official cannot recover damages under defamation law unless he or she is able to prove that the statements made against him or her were made with "actual malice." Actual malice requires that the person making the statements actually knows that they are false, or are made without regard to whether the statements are false or not. O'Connor qualified as a public official, the parents argued, because of his position as head basketball coach.
The district court, citing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, agreed that O'Connor was a public official. Since O'Connor was unable to show that the statements directed against him were made with actual malice, the court dismissed his lawsuit.
On appeal, the one question before the Supreme Court of Utah was whether O'Connor was in fact a public official, and if so, what the proper relationship was between the parents' First Amendment right of freedom of speech and his right to protect his reputation from defamatory statements.
While the Supreme Court of Utah reviewed New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the court concluded that the decision does not actually make it very clear who is and who is not a public official. Looking for guidance, the court turned to another U.S. Supreme Court decision [Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966)], which held that a public official exists when "a position in government has such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds it, beyond the general public interest in the qualifications and performance of all government employees."
Using this definition, the Supreme Court of Utah held that O'Connor, or any high school coach, was not endowed with such apparent importance. In support of this finding, the court stated that the constitutional standard for "public official" set down in Rosenblatt v. Baer limits the designation to those persons whose scope of responsibilities are likely to influence matters of public policy in the civil realm (as distinguished from the cultural, educational or sports realms). Public officials are individuals in whom the authority to make policy affecting life, liberty or property has been vested, and it was clear, the court held, that O'Connor had no such apparent importance.
In addition, the court held that the apparent importance of a government position sufficient to propel an employee into "public official" status has nothing to do with the level of passion or interest that the official might ignite in a segment of the public. Therefore, even though the parents were able to present evidence that high school athletics has claimed an ever more prominent position in the arena of entertainment and popular culture, the court refused to elevate high school coaches to the status of public officials.
The Utah Supreme Court thus sent the case back to the district court, which will now have to determine whether the parents' statements were defamatory.
While it is too early to determine the impact of the court's decision, it is important for a couple of reasons. First, it sends a clear message that high school coaches, even in today's world of expanded coverage of high school sports on television, in newspapers and on the Internet, are still private individuals who retain all their rights to recover damages under defamation law.
Second, while parents retain the right to go before school administrators and school boards to seek removal of a coach, the decision might help temper their statements, especially in cases that don't involve allegations of negligence and abuse. Considering the difficulty many schools and youth sports organizations have in finding and retaining competent coaches and officials, if nothing else the case may cause some parents to think twice before publicly waging a campaign to remove a coach for something as minor as playing time — and some administrators to think twice before firing a coach in such a circumstance.
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