Sandra Tetley, a parent with a child in the public school, has vented against the school district on her small blog and now faces a threat of a defamation action for what the school officials claim are libelous statements. The postings by Tetley and others accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland and other officials of lying, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” spying on employees, and other violations.
Under New York Times v. Sullivan, Cleveland is a public official subject to the higher standard of proof of actual malice. This case is precisely why such a constitutionally based standard was developed. Parents need to be able to vent and raise such questions. Tetley insists that these are just opinions. While it is not a complete defense to simply add “in my opinion” to defamatory statements, the lawsuit would stifle the ability of parents to raise such questions and discuss them in such forums. For the full story, click here
Tetley said she’ll review the postings cited by David Feldman of the district’s firm Feldman and Rogers. She’ll consider the context of the postings and consult attorneys before deciding what to delete.
“If it’s not worth keeping in there, I’ll take it out,” she said. “If in fact it is libelous, I have no problem taking it down.”
Libel Or Opinion?
Feldman said Tetley’s Web site — http://www.gisdwatch.com — contained the most “personal, libelous invective directed toward a school administrator” he’s seen in his 31-year career.
“It is not the desire of the School District, the Board, or this Firm to stifle free expression or inhibit robust debate regarding matters pertaining to the operation of the public schools,” Feldman wrote in the demand letter. “This is solely about the publication of materials that clearly go beyond that which is legally and constitutionally encouraged and permitted, and into the realm of what is legally offensive and actionable.”
Feldman cited 16 examples of what he says are libelous postings. Half were posted by Tetley; the other half were posted by anonymous users.
The postings accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland, trustees and administrators of lying, manipulation, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” violating the Open Meetings Act and spying on employees, among other things.
Tetley said the postings were opinions only.
“Everyone deserves to have their opinion,” she said. “I don’t think they have a right to make me, or anyone else, take down criticisms of them off the Web site. They’re not going to force us to take off our opinions because we have no other place to go.”
Tetley said she had not removed any of the postings as of late Tuesday.
One legal expert said the district’s move to sue Tetley is rare and unlawful. Under the 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, government entities cannot sue for libel — any court would toss out the “threatening” suit as being inconsistent with U.S. law, said Sandra Baron, executive director of New-York based Media Law Resource Center. She called the district’s potential lawsuit an intimidation tactic and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Feldman said the district is only asking Tetley to remove a small percentage of postings on her site that he says accuse trustees and administrators of breaking the law. They’re not trying to shut down the blog or eliminate postings, he said.
“How can that be threatening or initmidating?” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of dialogue, if you will, on that Web log that we’re not touching with a pole … What we leave is this huge field of free expression and discourse. There’s debate and then there’s libel. Debate all you want, criticize all you want, but don’t accuse people of committing crimes when you have absolutely no evidence to support that.”
More than 130 registered users post on Tetley’s site. Since trustees threatened legal action, more people have been visiting the site and posting, Tetley said. She said she planned to post Feldman’s letter on the site.