School board members who sue for defamation will likely have to prove “actual malice” in order to win. That’s the upshot of the decision by the Texas Supreme Court in a case brought by former Canadian ISD trustee, Salem Abraham.
Mr. Abraham claimed that an internet blog, AgendaWise, defamed him in its description of what happened at a public campaign event in Levelland in 2012. The event was sponsored by Jim Landtroop, a candidate for state legislature. Mr. Abraham supported Ken King, Landtroop’s opponent. The original post on the blog stated that Mr. Abraham “had to be forcefully removed…by Governor Perry’s DPS detail.”
Mr. Abraham complained about this to Daniel Greer, the executive director of AgendaWise, and as a result, the blog issued a correction that stated that Mr. Abraham “was asked to leave” the event “for heckling.” The post added that Mr. Abraham “cooperated” with this request.
Mr. Abraham complained again, thus leading to a second correction which read as follows:
Correction: On Wednesday August 1, Mr. Abraham contacted AgendaWise claiming he was not forcefully removed by DPS agents, as an earlier version of this story claimed. According to Mr. Abraham, he was asked to leave by campaign personnel, voluntarily cooperated, and DPS wasn’t involved. The portion about Mr. Abraham’s exit has been omitted.
AgendaWise also sent two letters of apology to Mr. Abraham.
He sued anyway.
The case worked its way to the Texas Supreme Court, where the issue was: does Mr. Abraham have to show “actual malice” to win his case? In a defamation suit (slander or libel) an ordinary citizen only needs to prove that the defendant made statements that are defamatory and false. But a “public official” has to show something more than that: actual malice. This is based on a famous U.S. Supreme Court decision, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, (1964).
Mr. Abraham essentially argued that this incident had nothing to do with his service on the Canadian school board. He was not acting as school trustee when he attended this event—he was participating as a citizen in a campaign event organized by a candidate for the state legislature. Moreover, the event was held in Levelland—200 miles from Canadian. The internet blog said nothing about Mr. Abraham’s service on the school board.
According to the Supreme Court, none of that mattered. The court made four key points about defamation suits involving public officials.
First, some public officials are “so well known in their communities that the general public automatically associates them with their official positions.” This would appear to apply to Mr. Abraham, who served on the Canadian board for 12 years, including service as president and vice president. Moreover, he is a 4th generation Canadian, a highly successful businessman, and perhaps the only resident of Canadian, Texas with a Wikipedia page. The guy is well known.
Second, the “public official” designation applies only when the case involves that person’s “official conduct.” But the court, citing New York Times, Co. v. Sullivan, noted that this includes not just official actions, but also “the official’s fitness for office.” Thus allegations that a school board member had to be forcefully removed from a public meeting by the DPS might meet that requirement.
Third, “actual malice” is “about the defendant’s attitude toward the truth, not his attitude toward the plaintiff.”
The court’s fourth point is the one of most importance to other school trustees, most of whom are not as well known as Mr. Abraham:
School board trustees are accessible to the public, they are the public’s link to public education. ….they have many public responsibilities. They hire and fire superintendents, set the annual budget, negotiate and approve contracts, seek voter approval of bond packages, set goals, and generally establish a vision for the district. Their meetings are typically open to the public, and, as a board, they are accountable for the school district’s performance. Abraham’s office is thus a very public one.
This case still has a long way to go. Mr. Abraham’s attorneys have made a number of other arguments, including the important assertion that an internet blog of this nature is not true “journalism.” But this ruling from our state’s highest court is important for all school board members. While few are as well known in their local communities as Mr. Abraham, the court’s sweeping language about the public nature of service on a school board makes it more likely than not that a school trustee seeking relief in a defamation suit would have to show actual malice.
The case is Greer v. Abraham, decided by the Texas Supreme Court on April 15, 2016. We found it at 2016 WL 1514425.
DAWG BONE: DEFAMATION SUITS INVOLVING A TRUSTEE’S OFFICIAL CONDUCT OR FITNESS FOR OFFICE WILL LIKELY HAVE TO SHOW “ACTUAL MALICE.”
File this one under: GOVERNANCE