Minnesota court: High school coaches not public officials

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Parents who defame their children’s public high school coaches don’t have legal protections when they make false claims, the Minnesota Supreme Court says.

The state’s highest court ruled Wednesday that the coaches are not public officials under First Amendment law so they have a lower legal bar for proving any defamation case. The ruling reinstates a lawsuit by former Woodbury High School girls’ basketball coach Nathan McGuire.

The unanimous decision, written by Justice Natalie Hudson, is the first time that the state Supreme Court has ruled on the issue, the Star Tribune reported.

“Simply, basketball is not fundamental to democracy,” the ruling said.

High courts in five other states also have decided the issue, with four of them also saying that public high school coaches don’t qualify as public officials. Raleigh Levine, a professor and First Amendment scholar at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on whether public school teachers or coaches are public officials.

Minnesota public high school coaches aren’t public officials under the law, according to the high court, because their decisions about playing time and benching tardy players aren’t core government functions. The justices did not address the issue of whether teachers are public figures in Minnesota.

Attorney Donald Chance Mark Jr., who represents McGuire, said the decision will matter statewide because it “finally provides an opportunity for coaches to defend their reputations when (parents) say things that are either untrue or, in some cases, lies.”

McGuire’s lawsuit is against Julie Bowlin, one of the parents who criticized him while he was coach at Woodbury from 2012 until 2014, when district officials decided not to renew his contract. A state agency rejected her complaint that the coach had mistreated her daughter. She continued to criticize him after he was dismissed. She told one parent that McGuire “was recently put in jail,” and told another that he had been involved in stealing funds.

The distinction between a private person and a public official is pivotal in libel law. To prove defamation, a private person needs to show negligence, defined as unreasonable carelessness. But public officials must show “actual malice,” defined as a knowing or reckless disregard for the truth. The different standards exist to protect and encourage free-flowing public discussion.

Wednesday’s decision reverses a ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which had affirmed a lower court’s ruling against the coach.