The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled Thursday that public school coaches are not public officials for the purposes of libel and defamation lawsuits.
In 2014 Nathan McGuire was released from his position as basketball coach at Woodbury High School when the school decided not to renew his contract. A group of parents were concerned about his conduct, with some of them untruthfully alleging that he “was recently put in jail” and had stolen funds from the school. McGuire sued the parents for defamation. The case was dismissed by the trial court, which held that McGuire was a public official because of his employment by the public school system. McGuire was therefore unable sue for libel or slander unless there was evidence that the statements were made by a person who knew that they were untruthful. McGuire appealed, arguing that he was not a public official and that the untruthful statements merely needed to be made negligently for him to succeed in a defamation suit.
In a unanimous ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with McGuire, holding that public school coaches are not public officials and that the trial court applied the incorrect standard to the case. The court used a balancing test to decide if coaches should be held to the higher standard, weighing “society’s interest in open, public debate about the performance of the duties of a high school basketball coach against society’s interest in protecting reputation.” Justice Natalie Hudson, the author of the opinion, blithely stated that “basketball is not fundamental to democracy” and that a coach’s duties are not “within the scope of government affairs” that would lead to McGuire’s classification as a public official. The court explicitly refused to extend the ruling to encompass other school employees, stating that the decision does not rule on whether public school teachers are public officials.