Principal is a public figure, court rules

NEW YORK — A state court ruled in March that a public school principal is a “public official,” squarely addressing the status of principals for purposes of libel law.Jean C. Jee brought suit against the New York Post after the newspaper ran several articles concerning her performance as the principal of the Livingston School, a conglomeration of several different public schools in New York City. The Post reported that the board of education was investigating Jee after charges of corporal punishment and other misconduct; the article featured the headline “Handcuff Principle Is Probed.”The newspaper requested that the libel lawsuit be thrown out by arguing that Jee is a public official and that the statements made by a teacher at the school were not done so with “actual malice,” which would require that the paper knew what it published was false or acted with reckless disregard.The state court cited a previous case in which “the court concluded that to find that a public school principal was not a public official for purposes of the defamation law would stifle public debate about important local issues.”The court’s ruling in Jee v. The New York Post Co., No. 3994/91 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Mar. 6, 1998) stressed the role of principals as public officials. Judge Herman Cahn wrote in his opinion, “Public school principals play an important role in shaping and administering the educational process. They supervise teachers and other staff as well as bear the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the students at their school during the school day.”Because that educational process is an important part of society, the judge reasoned, principals are public officials and therefore not afforded the same protections as private citizens when they believe that they have been libeled.