Charter School Can’t Sue for Libel

The ACLU sued the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy — a state-funded charter school — alleging that it was operated as a Muslim school and thus violated the Establishment Clause. The Academy counterclaimed, alleging defamation and tortious interference with current and prospective contractual relations.

Wednesday, the federal district court rejected the libel claim, reasoning that the charter school was a governmental entity, and governmental entities can’t sue for libel:

As a threshold matter, Plaintiff contends that as a public entity, TIZA cannot sue for defamation or related claims under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 291 (1964), and its progeny. A governmental body may not sue for defamation. See New York Times, 376 U.S. at 292. The United States Supreme Court in New York Times explained that “[f]or good reason, no court of last resort in this country has ever held, or even suggested, that prosecutions for libel on government have any place in the American system of jurisprudence.” Id. at 292 (quoting City of Chicago v. Tribune Co., 139 N.E. 86, 88 (Ill. 1923)). Accord Edgartown Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n v. Johnson, 522 F. Supp. 1149 (D. Mass. 1981) (“It is well-established that a governmental body may not sue for libel.”) (citing New York Times); City of Chicago v. Tribune Co., 139 N.E. at 91 (affirming judgment for defendant newspaper publisher on the ground that a city cannot maintain an action for libel); City of Philadelphia v. Washington Post Co., 482 F. Supp. 897, 898-99 (E.D. Pa. 1979) (“The City cannot maintain an action for libel on its own behalf. A governmental entity is incapable of being libeled.”). “Public debate must not be inhibited by the threat that one who speaks out on social or political issues may be sued by the very governmental authority which he criticizes.” Edgartown Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n, 522 F. Supp. at 1152 (citing New York Times, 376 U.S. at 292).

TIZA does not appear to dispute that public schools cannot sue for defamation, but contends that TIZA, as a non-profit corporation in the business of running a public charter school, is a separate legal entity and not part of the government. While it is true that TIZA is set up as a non-profit corporation, it is apparent that TIZA incorporated itself as such in order to be approved as a public charter school under the MCSL [Minnesota Chater School Law]. Under the MCSL, charter schools, including TIZA, provide free, public education to Minnesota students. The MCSL explicitly states that “[a] charter school is a public school and is part of the state’s system of public education.” Minn. Stat. § 124D.10, subd. 7. Under the MCSL, TIZA operates by law as a public school. Indeed, TIZA admits as much, explaining that “TIZA is a Minnesota non-profit corporation in the business of running a public charter school, not a private school.” Here, TIZA is suing Plaintiff over statements that it perceives to be critical of its functions as a public school. The Court concludes that the body of law establishing that government bodies may not sue for libel applies to TIZA as a public charter school under the MCSL. Accordingly, TIZA’s defamation claim fails as a matter of law.

The court goes on to also conclude that, even if the MCSL were able to sue for libel, it would be a public figure and would therefore have to show that ACLU acted with “actual malice” (knowledge that the statements were false or reckless disregard of the high probability that they were false), and the Academy failed to plead facts that would show actual malice. The court also noted “that it is doubtful, based on the record currently before the Court, that TIZA would be able to establish causation, defamation per se, or that the allegedly defamatory statements were anything more than non-actionable rhetorical statements.” Finally, the court also threw out the tortious interference claims, which were based on the defamation claims. Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.