ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court says a former Woodbury High School coach can sue his players’ parents for defamation because his position is not so important that criticism of his performance is protected by the First Amendment.
The decision reopens a defamation case that girls basketball coach Nathan McGuire brought in 2015 against a player’s mother, Julie Bowlin.
McGuire coached the team from 2012 to 2014, when the school district placed him on administrative leave and then declined to renew his contract after receiving complaints.
Bowlin and other parents had complained that McGuire swore at practice, flirted with players and touched them inappropriately by giving one player a back rub during a game and moving the girls by their hips and shoulders at practice, according to the court.
Bowlin also filed a maltreatment-of-minors complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education, but the department ruled in the coach’s favor.
At issue in McGuire’s defamation case was whether or not his position made him a “public figure” or “public official.”
If he was, he’d have to prove Bowlin acted with “actual malice” when she complained to McGuire’s boss, filed the maltreatment report and told another parent that she heard the coach had been arrested.
If the coach was not a public official, he can build his defamation case on a lower standard of evidence.
A Washington County District Court judge ruled in the parents’ favor, finding that the coach was a public official and had failed to provide evidence the parents had “knowingly or recklessly” made a false report.
The Court of Appeals agreed but the Supreme Court did not. The case now returns to the district court.
Who's a public official?
The U.S. Supreme Court established the defamation standard in 1964 in a case involving the New York Times.
Since then, Minnesota justices have held that a county attorney, probation and law enforcement officers and grand jurors all are “public officials” under that standard, which is meant to protect public debate about important issues and the officials’ performance.
The state Court of Appeals held in 1995 that a teacher is a public official, but the state Supreme Court has never considered that question.
This is the first time the Minnesota Supreme Court has considered whether the standard applies to a high school coach. However, the top courts in four of five states have concluded it does not; one of those cases involved a Utah high school basketball coach who was judged not to have been a public official.
The Minnesota Supreme Court uses three criteria when applying the standard. The defamation target must either:
- Perform “governmental duties directly related to the public interest;”
- Hold “a position to influence significantly the resolution of public issues;” or
- Be a government employee “having, or appearing to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs.”
Justice Natalie Hudson’s opinion explored at length whether McGuire fit the first criterion.
“Undoubtedly, the public has some ‘interest’ in the duties McGuire carried out, in the sense that members of the public pay attention to school sports, including the results of a team’s games. But in our view this interest is not enough,” she wrote.
“Just as the public has an interest in how McGuire carries out his duties, McGuire — indeed, society as a whole — has an interest in ensuring the ability to protect his reputation.
“… Put simply, basketball is not fundamental to democracy.”