Band Director cannot sue for defamatory statements of School Superintendent
During an inspection and testing of school computers, the Superintendent of Bad Axe Public Schools and the IT representative found that the long-time band director's work station and password had been utilized to visit websites containing "objectionable material." The Superintendent then allegedly falsely accused the band director of inappropriate conduct. He told School Board members that the director viewed and kept pornography; he told at least one parent that the director viewed pornography on his school computer and drank beer with students outside class; and he repeated these claims at an open school board meeting.
The band director resigned but sued the Superintendent, James Wencel, for defamation and invasion of privacy. The band director's suit was dismissed, and the dismissal was upheld in the Court of Appeals. The Court held that the director was essentially estopped from criticizing the statements made at the School Board meeting because he was offered the option of a closed session and refused. With regard to the other defamatory statements made to school board members, the Court ruled that the Superintendent, as the highest executive official of the school system, enjoyed absolute immunity with regard to statements made within his executive function. The Court would grant immunity even to statements made with actual malice, if they fell within the Superintendent's duties.
The Court acknowledged that similar statements made to a parent might not be similarly protected, but nevertheless held that because the band director admitted that he once drank beer in a bar with a student and her mother, and because his website suggested that he may have a "shoe fetish," there was enough truth in the Superintendent's statements to render them not actionable. It held that his similar admission that he had in the past given gifts to female students, formed an adequate basis to immunize the Superintendent's claim that the director had made "improper advances" to female students.