Ohio high court rules that principals are not public officials

OHIO — The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on May 15 that publicschool principals are neither “public officials” nor”public figures” for the purposes of defamation law.

The case began with the March 1995 firing of John McIntosh fromhis position as principal of East Canton High School. After histermination, McIntosh brought suit against the East Canton EducationAssociation, alleging that a statement about him read by a schoolofficial at a board meeting was false and damaging to his reputation.The board argued that McIntosh was a public official and as such,must prove the statement was made with “actual malice”-knowledgeof falsity or reckless disregard for the facts-in order to recoverdefamation-related damages.

Writing the opinion for the Ohio Supreme Court in East CantonEducation Association v. McIntosh, 709 N.E.2d 468, (Ohio 1999).Justice Andrew Douglas wrote that McIntosh did not meet the standardsfor “public official” status because he did not exercisesubstantial control over governmental affairs. He noted thatMcIntosh also fell short of the qualifications of a “publicfigure” outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court because he didnot occupy a position of pervasive power or influence, did notthrust himself into the forefront of a public controversy anddid not invoke the media as a sounding board for airing his grievances.Public figures must prove actual malice as well.

In dissent, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer wrote that a publicschool principal-particularly at the high school level-is a figurewidely covered and discussed. He emphasized that this is especiallytrue in a community such as East Canton, where only one high schoolserves the entire community.

“…This court should not adopt a broad general rule of syllabuslaw precluding a finding of public official status as to all publicschool principals,” Moyer wrote.

Instead, Moyer reasoned that ultimately, the decision of whethera school principal is considered a public figure should be determinedby the particular circumstances surrounding the alleged defamation.

The court’s decision is somewhat surprising, considering thatin 1986, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a public school superintendentis a public official. The new ruling does not even attempt tocompare or contrast that earlier case. Instead, the court drawson two cases in jurisdictions outside Ohio in support of its decision:an Illinois state court case and a Georgia state court decision,both of which held that the relationship between school principalsand the government is too remote for principals to be consideredpublic officials.

“Courts in other jurisdictions are divided whether publicschool principals should be accorded public official status,”Douglas wrote. “However, we believe that the better viewis that principals are not public officials for the purposes ofdefamation law.”