Minnesota High School Coaches Are Not Public Officials In Defamation Cases

Nov 8, 2019

By John J. Miller. Ph.D.
Parents who defame their children’s public high school coaches do not have legal protections when they make false claims, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled. In making this ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court declared that a Minnesota district court erred when it granted summary judgment to a parent, who had been sued by a coach for defamation. In a unanimous decision, Minnesota’s highest court reversed that ruling by stating that the coaches are not public officials under First Amendment law. This could lower the bar to prove future defamation cases in that state.
Between 2012 to 2014, Nathan McGuire served as the head coach of the girls’ basketball program for Woodbury (MN) High School (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019). While McGuire was coaching at the school, several parents, articulated apprehensions regarding McGuire’s behavior. Chief among these concerns was that he swore at players during practices, inappropriately touched the female players, and flirted with them. These anxieties were expressed in meeting with three parents, Julie Bowlin, Joy Szondy, and Cheryl Hewitt, with the school administrators to discuss McGuire’s conduct. Two days after Bowlin, Szondy, and Hewitt met with the school administrators, McGuire was placed on administrative leave from his coaching duties. Two months later, in March 2014, the school district decided not to renew McGuire’s coaching contract (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019).
Five months later, in August 2014, after McGuire was removed from his coaching position, Bowlin persisted in making allegations against McGuire. For example, she emailed another parent that, “Last I heard yesterday he was recently put in jail . . . I will find out the truth and call the [Department of Education] today and find out” (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019, p. 5). Additionally, four months after the August allegations, Bowlin distributed a newspaper article titled “Woodbury man sentenced to jail in stolen funds case,” to the same parent (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019, p. 5). With the newspaper article, Bowlin stated “I know we don’t talk anymore but this was part of the Woodbury stuff with [McGuire] that was going on. This guy too got busted” (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019, p. 5). Eventually, it was acknowledged that the subject of the article was not McGuire but another person entirely.
One year later, in December 2015, McGuire served and filed a complaint alleging that the parents had engaged in defamation. However, the parents named in the lawsuit moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) McGuire was a public official, (2) McGuire was a public figure, or (3) their statements were made under a qualified privilege (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019). Additionally, McGuire needed to prove malice in the charges but could not provide any proof of such malice from the parents. As a result, the district court granted their motions, dismissing all claims (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019).
Four months later, two of the parents, Julie Bowlin and Chelon Danielson, filed new motions for summary judgment (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019). Bowlin filed for all claims against her and Danielson regarding false-reporting and civil-conspiracy claims against her. As no evidence was produced indicating that Bowlin or Danielson “knowingly or recklessly” made a false report, the district court granted the motions reasoning that McGuire was a public official. Curiously, the district court did not reach the issue of whether McGuire was a public figure (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019).
According the United States Code Service Title 28, defamation is “any action or other proceedings for defamation, libel, slander, or similar claim alleging that forms of speech are false, have caused damage to reputation or emotional distress, have presented any person in a false light, or have resulted in criticism, dishonor, or condemnation of any person (§4101). To succeed on a defamation claim a plaintiff must prove the following elements: “(1) a false and defamatory statement concerning another; (2) an unprivileged publication to a third party; (3) fault (negligence or greater) on the part of the publisher; and (4) resulting injury” (Schmidt v. Cal-Drive International, 2017, p. 542). Should any of these components cannot be proven, the cause of action fails (Schmidt v. Cal-Drive International, 2017). In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment “prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” (pp. 279-280).
Public Official
A person’s standing as a public official, for reasons of a defamation action, does not hinge on the specific conduct of the person. Instead, the position as an employee must be one that would attract public scrutiny (Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 1967). The term public-official denotes an assessment between “the interests of the community in free circulation of information and those of individuals in seeking recompense for harm done by the circulation of defamatory falsehood” (Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 1967, p. 154).
The U. S. Supreme Court in Rosenblatt v. Baer (1966) indicated that the requirement for designation for a public official might be predicated on two factors: “first, a strong interest in debate on public issues, and, second, a strong interest in debate about those persons who are in a position significantly to influence the resolution of those issues” (p. 86). Furthermore, the court in Britton v. Koep (1991) provided three additional criteria regarding an official public designation. The first criterion questioned whether the individual was performing governmental duties directly related to the public interest. The second point addressed whether the individual held a position that would influence any resolution of public concerns. The third item stated that the person would need to be a governmental employee who appeared by the public to have significant responsibility or control over the handling of government affairs.
Public Figures
The U.S. Supreme Court in Gertz v. Welch (1974) identified three types of public figures. First, involuntary public figures, although very infrequent, are people who become public figures “through no purposeful action of [their] own” (p. 345). In fact, a case involving involuntary figures has ever been heard from the Supreme Court through the Court of Appeals. The second type is referred to as all-purpose public figures. People in this category are people who have attained their status having “assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society . . . [with] such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes” (Gertz v. Welch, 1974, p. 20). The last type is limited-purpose public figures who have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved” (Gertz v. Welch, 1974, p. 20).
Summary of the Case
Citing the defamation standard established in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a high school basketball coach is not a public official. The Court declared that public high school coaches are not public officials under the law because their decisions about playing time and benching players who are late do not rise to the level of core government functions. The Court acknowledged that public schools are part of government and McGuire as a girls’ high school basketball coach was technically engaged in government affairs. However, simply because he received a government paycheck as compensation for the performance of his job did not achieve the status of a public official. The Court ruled that, for the “government duty” standard to support being a public official, the duties of the person must be associated with a core function of government, such as safety and public order. Although McGuire was employed by the school district, his coaching duties were considered secondary to core functions of government. The Court further recognized the importance that high school basketball may have as a social fabric in numerous communities throughout the state; it is not an issue that the general public does not have “a strong interest in debating” (Rosenblatt v. Baer, 1966). Furthermore, despite the plaintiff’s contention that McGuire’s alleged behavior was an issue, his conduct was not. Rather, an employee’s position must be one that would “invite public scrutiny and discussion of the person holding it, entirely apart from the scrutiny and discussion occasioned by the particular charges in controversy” (Rosenblatt v. Baer, 1966, p. 86). To this point, the court in Rosenblatt stated that McGuire’s position did not have the ability to sway public issues appreciably. As a result, being a high school basketball coach did not rise to the level of a public official.
While neither the district court nor the court of appeals addressed the issue of McGuire’s status as a limited-purpose public figure, the Minnesota Supreme Court did so. Citing Chafoulias v. Peterson (2003), the Court restricted their analysis to controversies that were “are already the subject of debate in the public arena at the time of the alleged defamation” (p. 652). By doing so, the Court did not review the controversies generated by the alleged defamatory statements made by the parents. Despite controversies created by the alleged defamatory statements made by the parents, the Court reported that defamatory comments could not be the foundation for presuming that a person, such as McGuire, was a limited-purpose public figure. In other words, “a party cannot stir up controversy by making defamatory statements and then point to the resulting controversy as a basis for assigning the defamed party public-figure status” (Chafoulias v. Peterson, 2003, pp. 651-652). As a result, the Court unanimously determined that McGuire was not a limited-purpose public figure as a target of allegedly defamatory statements.
The legal difference between a private person and a public official is crucial. To verify defamation, a private person must illustrate negligence or unreasonable carelessness. Conversely, public officials must demonstrate that the actions were “actual malice” in nature (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019). In this context, actual malice towards a public official pertains to the person having knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not (McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019). According to McGuire’s attorney, the ruling “finally provides an opportunity for coaches to defend their reputations when (parents) say things that are either untrue or, in some cases, lies” (Associated Press, 2019, para. 7).
While the United States Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether public school coaches are public officials, this case reveals that coaches are not public officials under the First Amendment. Supreme courts in five states, other than Minnesota, have decided the issue, with four of them also saying that public high school coaches do not qualify as public officials (Associated Press, 2019). Ultimately, the Minnesota Supreme Court indicated, from the opinion written by Justice Natalie Hudson, “Just as the public has an interest in how McGuire carries out his duties, McGuire — indeed, society as a whole — has an interest in ensuring the ability to protect his reputation” (pp. 11-12).
John J. Miller is a Professor, Sport Management at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Associated Press. (2019). Minnesota Supreme Court: Coaches are not public figures under defamation law. Retrieved from https://www.sctimes.com/story/news/local/2019/09/05/minnesota-supreme-court-coaches-not-public-figures-under-defamation-law/2218721001/
Britton v. Koep, 470 N.W.2d 518, 520 (Minn. 1991).
Chafoulias v. Peterson, 668 N.W.2d 642, 648-49 (Minn. 2003).
Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 152-53, 87 S. Ct. 1975, 18 L.Ed. 2d 1094 (1967).
Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. 418 U.S. 323, 342, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 41 L. Ed 2d 789 (1974).
McGuire v. Bowlin, 2019 Minn. LEXIS 535.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964).
Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85, 86 S. Ct. 669, 15 L. Ed. 2d 597 (1996).
Schmidt v. Cal-Drive International, Inc., 240 F.Supp.3d 532, 542 (W.D. La. 2017)


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