Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Baker Mitchell, Jr. runs charter schools in North Carolina. When his application for a new one went forward a few years ago, it drew criticism from the superintendent of the local school district. The superintendent purportedly made a lot of disparaging comments about the charter school. Baker Mitchell then sued the superintendent for what he calls defamatory statements.The North Carolina summarized the plaintiffs'allegations:
[The superintendent said] public charter schools were “dismantling” North Carolina's public education system and that they have “morphed into an entrepreneurial opportunity.” On 4 December 2013, a video entitled “Dr. Pruden Superintendent of the Year Video” was published on YouTube. In that video, defendant falsely stated that BCS was superior to the “competition” because BCS “does not operate schools for a profit.” In that video, defendant falsely stated that BCS was superior to the “competition” because BCS “does not operate schools for a profit.”
Plaintiffs alleged that defendant's reference to “competition” was “clearly a reference” to the public charter schools
for children of Brunswick
The second amended complaint further alleged as follows: In 2013, RBA submitted an application to the Office of Charter Schools for a new public charter school named “South Brunswick Charter School” (“SBCS”). Defendant began an “obsessive public campaign to derail approval” of the new school, “viciously defaming the character and reputation” of Mitchell. First, defendant submitted a “Local Education Agency Impact Statement” to the Office of Charter Schools on 9 April 2013 and a revised impact statement (“impact statement”) on 14 May 2013. At some time after 20 May 2013, defendant's impact statement was posted to a website maintained by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Plaintiffs alleged that the impact statement contained statements that “maligns” plaintiffs and “casts aspersions on Mitchell's honesty, character and moral standing in the community[.]” Defendant also privately petitioned at least one member of the Charter School Advisory Council (“CSAC”) to manipulate the approval process such that approval of the charter would be denied. The vice-chair of the CSAC, Tim Markley (“Markley”), “issued repeated challenges” to the SBCS. On 16 July 2013, a motion was made to approve the SBCS conditioned upon a change in the CDS Board. Markley met with defendant in the hall after the meeting and Markley was overheard expressing his regrets and apologizing for not being able to prevent approval of the SBCS charter.
Plaintiffs alleged that defendant, acting in his individual capacity, began submission of “a parade of documents” to the North Carolina State Board of Education (“SBE”), including copies of defamatory letters written to Mr. Bill Cobey, chairman of the SBE, expressing false allegations and his concerns about what defendant claimed were conflicts of interest between Mitchell, RBA, and public charter schools. In a letter dated 7 August 2013 to Mr. Cobey and the SBE, defendant urged that the SBE consider information regarding conflicts of interest before taking action on the application for SBCS. Plaintiffs alleged that this letter contained statements which were “false, libelous and intended to impugn the ethical reputation and character of Mitchell.”
Mitchell v. Pruden, No. COA16-428, 2017 WL 163754, at *1–2 (N.C. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2017).
The North Carolina Court of Appeals through the lawsuit out last week. It did not reach the issue of whether the statements were true or defamatory. It did not need to. It held that the statements were within the scope of the superintendent's official duties. Moreover, his "actions were consistent with the duties and authority of a superintendent and constituted permissible opinions regarding his concerns for the approval of a new charter school." Thus, he was immune from suit.
In any event, one might also criticize Mitchell for wanting to have his cake and eat it too. A public school superintendent would have a hard time suing any member of the public for criticizing him for his discharge of his public duties. The Supreme Court in NY Times v. Sullivan made suits by public officials for defamation and libel considerably harder. The Court reasoned that they have the benefit of self-help through the media and that the nature of their job is to be open to criticism, even when it is off-base. If charter schools are public schools, those that run them may need to have little thicker skin.