Fourth circuit reverses district court ruling in defamation case

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Hugger v. the Rutherford Institute, 63 Fed.App. 683, unpublished (4th Cir. 2003)

Joyce Darnell contacted the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil rights and religious liberty organization, alleging that her daughter Hanna’s constitutional rights had been violated at school. Specifically, Darnell stated that Hanna’s principal, Vickie Hugger, and her teacher, Carolyn Settle, at C.B. Eller Elementary School (Wilkes County, N.C.) had twice forced Hanna to say “damn” as part of a reading-aloud assignment and had prevented the girl from expressing her religious beliefs through the letters “WWJD” (“What would Jesus do?”). After some investigation, the institute issued a press release, also published on its Internet site, recounting Hanna’s allegations as fact and accusing Hugger and Settle of violating Hanna’s First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and religious liberty.

A week later Hanna retracted her story, admitting that she had lied. The institute then published a full retraction and apology on its Internet site and in a press release. It also sent letters of apology to Hugger, Settle, and the superintendent.

Hugger and Settle filed suit, alleging defamation, among other things.

The federal court for the Western District of North Carolina dismissed the defamation claim before trial, finding that Hugger and Settle had failed to present any evidence that the Rutherford Institute had acted with actual malice. A showing of actual malice (that is, acting with knowledge that a statement is false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity) is a constitutional requirement in defamation cases involving public officials. The court in this case also determined that Hugger and Settle were public officials—a decision of first impression in North Carolina.

Editor’s Note: Public officials hold positions of such importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the persons who hold them beyond the general interest the public has in the qualifications and performance of all government employees.

The Rutherford Institute appealed.

In an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling, finding that the district court had violated a decision rule providing that courts should avoid resolution of constitutional issues unless they are essential to the disposition of a case. In this case, the district court had failed to address whether the institute’s statements were defamatory under state law before moving on to the public official analysis. The appeals court ruled that state defamation law, which could very well have provided a basis for disposing of the claim, should be considered on remand. [For more on this case, see David Hostetler, "School Cyberlaw, Part 1: Cyberspeech; First Amendment and Defamation,” School Law Bulletin 34 (Fall 2003): 1–15.]

summarized by Ingrid M. Johansen

posted Fall 2003