Criticizing the Coach: Free Speech, Defamation, or Privileged Communication?

Article excerpt

O'Connor v. Burningham

Utah Supreme Court

165 P.3d 1214

July 31, 2007

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides every citizen the right to freedom of speech. However, the courts have consistently held that there are limits to free speech. The classic example is found in Justice Holmes's Supreme Court opinion in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States that "free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." One of the constraints to unfettered free speech is found in the law of defamation.

Defamation law (libel and slander) seeks to balance free speech with an individual's right to a good name and reputation. Free speech cases are not always simple because, as one court said, "whatever is added to the field of libel is taken from the field of free debate" (Sweeney v. Patterson, 1942). When called upon to balance these rights between a high school coach and disgruntled parents, a Utah court said, "Defamation ... never arrives at court without its companion and antagonist, the First Amendment, in tow ... Defamation claims always reside in the shadow of the First Amendment" (O'Connor v. Burningham, 2007).

The Utah Supreme Court recently considered a case involving a coach who sued parents and other members of the community for allegedly defamatory statements made about him. The parents answered by claiming the existence of a qualified privilege for intra-family relationships, which the Utah courts had not yet adopted.

Facts of the Case

Michael O'Connor was the women's basketball coach at Lehi High School in Utah. In what appeared to be a fortunate development for his team, an elite basketball player transferred into the school. Unfortunately, the addition of the new player created extreme conflict among team members, resulting in a concerted effort by some parents, family members, and friends of players to have O'Connor removed as coach. The defendants undertook a persistent and multifaceted campaign of complaints against the coach, alleging inappropriate coaching demeanor, preferential treatment favoring the new player, financial misconduct, and improper recruiting of the player. After an investigation, the principal and school administrators determined that O'Connor had done nothing wrong. Not satisfied, the complainants took their grievances to the school board. The board took no action, but the administration ultimately dismissed O'Connor as coach when he refused to promise that he would not retaliate by denying team membership and playing time to certain players. After his dismissal, O'Connor sued the complainants for defamation.

Case Analysis

Courts have described defamation as disseminating, through speech, writing, or some other medium, an untrue statement that shames, ridicules, berates, disparages, or in some other manner harms the good name and reputation of the subject of the statement. Restatement (Second) of Torts [section] 559 (1977) defines a communication as defamatory if it "tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him."

One of the basic principles of defamation law is that not all persons are treated equally. In a series of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court established three categories of persons for defamation purposes; public officials, public figures, and private persons. To prove a defamation case, public officials or public figures must show that the defendant acted with actual malice, an extremely high burden of proof. The court defined actual malice as a communication made "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not" (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964). On the other hand, a private person has a much lower burden of proof; he or she must merely prove that the defendant acted negligently. …