Justices set new standards in Idaho Supreme Court decision

Idaho Supreme Court justices made two important distinctions Monday that impact both journalists and teachers in the eyes of the law.

Public school teachers, the Supreme Court ruled, are not public officials. In legal terms, that means they have fewer hoops to jump through if they want to sue someone for defamation (or damaging their reputation by spreading false information.)

Justices also cemented the decision that journalists can be held liable for a defamatory impression that a story conveys, even if the facts the reporter uses are technically correct and laid out a rubric for determining “defamation by implication.”

Monday’s ruling relates to the case of former school teacher James Verity, who sued USA Today and other news outlets after they published stories in 2016 that included information about a relationship Verity had with a student in Oregon. After he lost his teaching license in Oregon, Verity moved to Idaho and taught in the Caldwell area until the news articles published in 2016 and he was forced to resign.

In his lawsuit, Verity argued that the news outlets defamed him when they falsely implied, among other things, that he had sex with a minor. According to the facts of the case in the Supreme Court decision, the student was 18 and while the relationship did include some sexual contact, there was no proof Verity ever had sex with the student.

In the end, the court tossed out claims against USA Today and Boise television station KTVB, who reported the student’s age and details about the extent of the relationship. But, justices ruled that a jury should examine whether Portland-based television station KGW “impliedly defamed Verity about having a sexual relationship with a minor,” not based on what reporters said — but based on facts the news story left out, and the impression that created.

“From an overall policy perspective, it was a very good decision,” Ronald Shepherd, Verity’s lawyer, told Idaho EdNews. “It’s disappointing, to some extent, for Mr. Verity specifically, but he’s happy the Supreme Court got the law right and agreed with us.”

Shepherd will continue to pursue the defamation claims against KGW in Idaho district court, he told Idaho EdNews.

Debora Kristensen Grasham, the attorney representing the media outlets involved in the case, declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation involving KGW.

The ruling establishes Idaho’s footing in two national debates.

“The big, breakthrough thing here is that Idaho, up until this case, had not weighed in on the issue of whether or not a teacher was a public official or public figure,” said Timothy Fleming, Idaho EdNews’ attorney.

The importance of that distinction is one of legal burden, Fleming explained.

In a defamation lawsuit against a media outlet, a public official must prove malice, or prove “that the defendant had knowledge of the falsehood or acted with reckless disregard as to whether it was false or not,” the Supreme Court decision says.

As a private citizen, a school teacher does not have to prove malice when suing for defamation.

The court ruling points out that states are split on this issue. A 1984 ruling in Florida decided teachers were not public officials in that state, it says, while a 1978 Oklahoma ruling decided a teacher in that state was.

In the Verity case, media groups argued that “Verity holds a position of such public importance that his public employee status coupled with deeds set forth in the publications or broadcasts should alone qualify him as a public official.” The court decided differently.

“A public teacher working in a teaching capacity will rarely, if ever, qualify as a public official,” the justices wrote.

Shepherd, Verity’s lawyer, called the decision “a victory for school teachers … and how they’re going to be treated in the context of defamation law in Idaho.”

The court’s decision also adds Idaho to the ranks of states that have laid the groundwork for defamation by implication as a suable offense. Other states, including New York and California, have adopted standards for implied defamation.

However, in an amicus brief to the court, a coalition of media outlets said Idaho should join other states that have declined to recognize defamation by implication, or limited its scope, in order “to safeguard truthful speech about public matters.”

Professor Kyu Ho Youm, a communication law expert who teaches at the University of Oregon, thinks the Idaho ruling did draw such careful lines about interpreting defamation by implication.

Youm points to language in the ruling demanding “an ‘especially rigorous showing,'” of defamation by implication.

The Idaho justices cited a New York court decision, which holds that a plaintiff must show that the author “intends or endorses” the inference contained in an article. In Idaho, Supreme Court justices decided that a plaintiff must provide some level of proof not just about the “falsity implied by the language but also as to the intent held by the language’s author.”

“The Idaho Supreme Court is wise, I think, discerning in making some kind of higher scrutiny as a burden for whoever is claiming defamation by implication,” Youm said. “…I think the intent is now a lot more important on the part of the libel plaintiff, at least when it comes to whether there is implied defamation.”

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