Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"Basketball Is Not Fundamental To Democracy"

The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that a high school basketball coach is not a "public official" under the New York Times v. Sullivan malice standard. 

To strike this balance, we conclude that, for the “government duty” criterion to support the conclusion that someone is a public official, his or her duties must relate to the core functions of government, such as safety and public order. Although McGuire was employed by the school district, his coaching duties are ancillary to core functions of government; put simply, basketball is not fundamental to democracy.

Would an Indiana or North Carolina court agree?

The putative public issue in this case—the operation of a high school basketball team—is far afield from the public issue in Rosenblatt. We acknowledge that high school basketball is an important piece of the social fabric in many communities. And the wins and losses of a high school basketball team—as well as who plays and who does not—may lead to emotional highs and lows in the lives of the players and their families. Nevertheless, these issues are not the sort of issues that the public has “a strong interest in debat[ing].” Id. at 85. Rosenblatt therefore suggests that McGuire’s position is not that of a public official.

Hewitt argues that the public issue in this case is not the basketball team’s success, but rather McGuire’s specific conduct as coach. In doing so, Hewitt erroneously shifts the focus of the public-official inquiry from McGuire’s role to McGuire’s conduct. But the Supreme Court was clear in Rosenblatt that a person’s status as a public official does not depend on the particulars of the person’s conduct; instead, “[t]he employee’s position must be one which would invite public scrutiny and discussion of the person holding it, entirely apart from the scrutiny and discussion occasioned by the particular charges in controversy.” Id. at 86 n.13 (emphasis added). Looking solely at McGuire’s position, he does not have the ability to influence significantly the resolution of public issues.

The defamation defendants

While McGuire was coaching at Woodbury, respondents, all of whom were parents of players on the team, expressed concerns about McGuire’s conduct, most notably alleging that he swore at practices, touched players in inappropriate ways, and flirted with players. In January 2014, these concerns ultimately culminated in Bowlin, Szondy, and Hewitt meeting with (and Danielson writing a letter to) school administrators to discuss McGuire’s conduct. Two days after respondents met with the school administrators,
McGuire was placed on administrative leave from his coaching duties. Two months later, in March 2014, the school district decided not to renew McGuire’s coaching contract.

The court reversed the grant of summary judgment as to one defendant and affirmed as to three others because (as to those defendants) he had not appealed the trial court ruling against him on qualified privilege

Having reviewed the undisputed facts regarding McGuire’s duties as coach and regarding the lack of any controversy concerning his performance before the allegedly defamatory statements were made, we conclude that McGuire is neither a public official nor a public figure. However, because McGuire did not appeal the district court’s conclusion that the statements of respondents Joy Szondy, Chelon Danielson, and Cheryl Hewitt fall under a qualified privilege, we nevertheless affirm summary judgment as to those three respondents. Because the district court granted summary judgment to respondent Julie Bowlin solely on the basis of McGuire’s status as a public official, we reverse as to McGuire’s defamation claim against her and remand for further proceedings on that claim.

I thought (having learned from Coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers) that basketball was all about the fundamentals. (Mike Frisch)

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