Nassar et al v. Jackson et al
ORDER reaffirming and restating the Court's findings as follows: For reasons stated from the bench, the Court agreed and granted defendants' request for a jury instruction governing defamation claims by public officials or public figures. Given that Nassar had substantial responsibility over the affairs of the Hughes School District and the fact that the asserted defamatory statements related directly to the performance of his important public duties, the Court finds that he qualifies as a public official and must show that defendants published defamatory statements with actual malice. Signed by Judge Susan Webber Wright on 1/24/2013. (jak)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
RAY NASSAR and GENA SMITH,
EARNESTINE JACKSON, individually
and in her official capacity as a Hughes
School Board Member, ET AL.
NO: 3:11CV00133 SWW
Among the claims joined in this action, plaintiff Ray Nassar (“Nassar”) seeks damages
from defendants Earnestine Jackson (“Jackson”) and Jimmy Wilkins (“Wilkins”) for defamation.
During a jury instruction conference, defense counsel argued that Nassar’s defamation claims are
governed by the actual malice standard announced in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S.
254, 84 S.Ct. 710 (1964). For reasons stated from the bench, the Court agreed and granted
defendants’ request for a jury instruction governing defamation claims by public officials or
public figures. This order reaffirms that ruling and restates the Court’s findings.
During the events in controversy in this case, Nassar served as the superintendent of the
Hughes School District (“District”), Jackson served on the Hughes School Board (“Board”), and
Wilkins followed Nassar as superintendent after the Board terminated Nassar’s employment
contract on February 8, 2011.
In support of Nassar’s defamation claim against Jackson, he alleges that on July 13, 2010,
the Board voted to approve his recommendation to hire Gena Smith as the District’s general
business manager, and after the vote, Jackson stated: “He’s promoting his girlfriend.” Nassar
also alleges that Jackson called him a liar during an October 12, 2010 Board meeting. As for his
claim against Wilkins, Nassar alleges that during a public Board meeting held April 12, 2011,
Wilkins–the District’s newly-appointed superintendent–made statements that implied Nassar had
mishandled or stolen $1,400,000 from the District.
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-280, 84 S.Ct. 710, 726 (1964), the
Supreme Court held that the First Amendment requires a federal rule that prohibits a public
official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct
unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice–that is, with knowledge that it
was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.
Subsequently, the Court extended
the actual malice standard to defamation claims brought by public figures. See Curtis Publishing
v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 87 S. Ct. 1975 (1967).
The Supreme Court has established a minimum standard by which a plaintiff may qualify
as a public official:
The public official designation applies at the very least to those among the hierarchy
of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial
responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.... Where a
position in government has such apparent importance that the public has an
independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds
it, beyond the general public interest in the qualifications and performance of all
government employees, ... the New York Times malice standards apply.
Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85–86, 86 S.Ct. 669, 676, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966). The
foregoing definition of public official balances society’s interests in protecting reputations and
encouraging free discussion of governmental affairs because the public official’s “position must
be one which would invite public scrutiny and discussion of the person holding it, entirely apart
from the scrutiny and discussion occasioned by the particular charges in controversy.” Id. at 86
n. 13, 86 S.Ct. at 676 n. 13.
Under Arkansas law, a superintendent of schools is the executive officer of a school
district board of directors, who directs the affairs of the school district and carries out the
policies of the school district.1 See Ark. Code. Ann. § 6-13-701. Given that Nassar had
substantial responsibility over the affairs of the Hughes School District and the fact that the
asserted defamatory statements related directly to the performance of his important public
duties, the Court finds that he qualifies as a public official and must show that defendants
published defamatory statements with actual malice.
IT IS SO ORDERED THIS 24TH DAY OF JANUARY, 2013.
/s/Susan Webber Wright
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Although the Arkansas Supreme Court has not addressed whether a school
superintendent meets the definition of public official, courts in other jurisdictions have held that
persons in positions such as Nassar's are public officials or public figures. See Collins v. Taos
Bd. of Educ., No. CIV 10-407 JCH-LFG, 2012 WL 4466657, *8 (D.N.M. Sept. 27, 2012); Beck
v. Lone Star Broad Co., 970 S.W.2d 610, 614-15 (Tex. App.1998)(holding assistant
superintendent for business services of school district a public official); Purvis v. Ballantine, 487
S.E.2d 14, 17 (Ga. Ct. App.1997)(holding superintendent public official because he routinely
made personnel, administrative and budgetary decisions affecting the public school system);
Scott v. News-Herald, 496 N . E.2d 699, 703 (Ohio 1986)(holding school superintendent was
public official because he was responsible for implementing policies, expected to serve as a role
model for students, and exercised supervisory authority over students).
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