An Illinois appellate court recently ruled that a PUBLIC ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER WAS NOT A “PUBLIC FIGURE” for purposes of a libel suit she filed against a Chicago television station. As a private figure, the court said, the teacher needed only to prove that the television station acted negligently when it aired a story regarding the teacher’s alleged misconduct in her classroom.
Illinois courts, like courts across the country, have struggled with the question of how to classify teachers and other school officials. This latest decision, for example, is contrary to a 1974 Illinois appellate decision which ruled that public school teachers were public figures required to show that a report was published with “actual malice” before winning a libel case. In 1981, however, another Illinois appeals court ruled that a public high school principal was not a public official.
More than any other group, teachers have probably proven the most difficult for courts to categorize for purposes of defamation. Yet teachers and other school officials top the subject list of most student media. While, particularly in recent years, most courts have ruled that teachers and other public school officials are public figures, this Illinois decision makes clear that the question remains very much an open one. The SPLC’s advice: Don’t play the public/private figure game. ALWAYS assume that your subject is a private figure and always follow sound reporting practices. Remember, as long as a court finds that you have acted “reasonably” in publishing your information, you will never be found liable, regardless of who is suing.
Case: Snitowsky v. NBC Subsidiary (WMAQ-TV), 26 Med. L. Rep. 2265 (Ill. App. 1998)