Former Teacher Cannot Sue for Defamation

School officials’ comments protected because they were a matter of “common interest.”

McCartney v. Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, 609 N.E.2d 216 (Ohio App. 6 Dist. 1992)

Key point: Statements made to others concerning a matter of common interest are protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with malice.

An Ohio appeals court ruled that a former teacher at a church-operated school could not sue school officials for defamation since the allegedly defamatory statements made by the school officials concerned a matter of "common interest" and accordingly were privileged.

A teacher at a church-operated school was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for providing alcohol to one of his students. He advised school officials of his conviction, and was permitted to remain on the faculty both as a teacher and yearbook adviser. A few years later, his teaching contract was not renewed. A priest was hired to replace him as teacher and yearbook adviser. When the former teacher continued to associate with student members of the yearbook staff, two priests (who served as administrators at the school) contacted the parents of two of these students and informed them that the former teacher had been convicted of "corrupting a minor," implied that he was a homosexual, and recommended that they not permit their sons to associate with such a person.

The former teacher learned of these statements, and sued the priests for defamation. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the former teacher appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court that the statements made by the priests were not defamatory since they were protected by a qualified privilege. The court defined defamation as a false oral or written statement made about another person that injures his or her reputation. However, it noted that

[a] communication made in good faith on any subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest … is privileged if made to a person having a corresponding interest … even though it contains matter which, without this privilege, would be [defamatory] …. The essential elements of a conditionally privileged communication may accordingly be enumerated as good faith, an interest to be upheld, a statement limited in its scope to this purpose, a proper occasion, and publication in a proper manner and to proper parties only. The privilege arises from the necessity of full and unrestricted communication concerning a matter in which the parties have an interest ….

The court concluded that the remarks made by the priests concerning the former teacher were privileged under this test:

As a matter of public policy, educators and parents share a common interest in the training, morality and well-being of the children in their care. Because of this shared interest, a relationship exists between the educators of a child and the parents of that child in which a right, and in many instances a duty, to communicate information concerning the education and well-being of that child arises. The occasions presented in this case are examples of such a relationship …. [S]tatements made by a teacher and a principal which relate to a former teacher's interference in the educational process or commission of acts which are potentially harmful to the well-being of a student, when made to the parents of the student involved, can be motivated by a common interest in education or safety of that student. Further, the statements were imparted only to those parents who had a common interest in their continued association with the yearbook …. Accordingly, the trial court properly found that a qualified privilege existed as a matter of law.

A qualified privilege means that statements cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements either knew they were false, or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. Malice "cannot be inferred from evidence of intent to injure, ill will or personal spite … [r]ather, the evidence must demonstrate with convincing clarity that the defendants were aware of a high probability of falsity." The court concluded that the former teacher had failed to prove that the priests made the statements maliciously. All the former teacher offered were conclusory allegations that the priests acted with malice. He had failed to present any evidence that the priests "were aware of a high probability of falsity."

See also "Denominations—legal liability," Marshall v. Munro, 845 P.2d 424 (Alaska 1993).

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