In McGuire v. Bowlin, — N.W.2d — (Minn. 2019), the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that Nathan C. McGuire, a former head coach of the girl’s basketball program at Woodbury High School, was not a “public figure” for purposes of determining the standard for a defamation claim he asserted against certain parents of players on the team. The parents had made statements suggesting, among other things, that he had touched players in inappropriate ways and flirted with them. The rumors allegedly led to the school district deciding not to renew McGuire’s coaching contract.
The question in the McGuire case goes back to New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), in which the United States Supreme Court held that defamation plaintiffs who are “public officials” or “public figures” can only recover on a defamation claim if they can show that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” a more difficult standard than that for non-public figures. (“Actual malice” means the alleged defamatory statement was made with knowledge that is was false or reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.)
The Minnesota high court applied three criteria to evaluate whether McGuire’s position as coach made him a public official: (1) whether he was performing governmental duties directly related to the public interest; 2) whether he held a position to influence significantly the resolution of public issues; and (3) whether he had, or appeared to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs. The Court concluded that all three factors weighed against treating McGuire as a public official.
The public official designation seeks to strike a balance between the interests of the community in free circulation of information and those of individuals in seeking recompense for harm done by circulation of defamatory falsehood. The court said it had to weigh society’s interest in open, public debate about the performance of the duties of a basketball coach against society’s interests in protection of reputation. Ultimately, it held, “basketball is not fundamental to democracy.” Courts of last resort in four out of five other states that have considered the question reached the same conclusion, the court noted.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed an order for summary judgment by the trial court dismissing McGuire’s defamation claim against one parent as well as an unpublished decision by the intermediate Court of Appeals affirming the dismissal. The claim now goes back to proceed to trial.
The McGuire decision explores the balance of public policies that undergird the New York Times v. Sullivan test and will be an important guide to help determine when lower-level government employees in Minnesota must meet a higher burden when asserting a claim of defamation. It is especially helpful for coaches in the state who are increasingly the subject of criticism and scrutiny by overzealous parents.
V. John Ella is a Minnesota defamation law attorney. He can be reached at 612.455.6237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.