Who is a public figure in
public schools?

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public officials “generally have greater
access to channels of effective
communication to
rebut false charges.”
Moreover, the court reasoned that the
governance of a public school is of “utmost
importance to a community” and that
residents normally scrutinize school board
The court also noted that controversial
actions of public school officials constitute
news in the local paper. Additionally, the
court cited to the U.S. Supreme Court case
Brown v. Board of Education in stating
that “[E]ducation is perhaps the most
function of state and local governments.”
Consequently, it was held that there was a
manifestly strong public interest in open
discussion of the principal’s job
and fitness for the position.
Therefore, in light of the court’s holding in
Ghafur v. Bernstein, it is highly likely
that charter school officers and directors,
including those considering becoming
school officers and directors, should be
advised that they will be entitled to a lesser
degree of protection in terms of being
able to recover damages against another
based on
claims of defamation.
If you should have any questions
regarding this update, please contact Paul
Minney (pminney@smymlaw.com) or
Marisa Rubitz (mrubitz@smymlaw.com) at
Law Offices of Spector, Middleton, Young
& Minney, LLP at (916) 646-1400.
Spector, Middleton, Young & Minney LLP’
s Legal Alerts provide general information
events of current legal importance; they
do not constitute legal advice. As the
contained here is necessarily general, its
application to a particular set of facts and
circumstances may vary. We do not
recommend that you act on this
information without
consulting Legal counsel.
Charter School Officials Pursuing Defamation

Legal Alert
Charter School Officials Dealing with

Law Offices of  Spector, Middleton, Young &
Minney, LLP
August 23, 2005

While there has been disagreement among
jurisdictions as to whether public
school principals and teachers are to be
considered public officials when analyzing
defamation claims, there has been
overwhelming agreement that public school
superintendents and board members do
indeed merit the designation of a public

However, until now, this widely accepted
court holding has not been expanded to
include charter school officials.

The California Court of Appeal’s recent
decision in Ghafur v. Bernstein (2005
WL 1910135), a defamation case involving a
plaintiff who was a charter school principal,
clarifies that charter school officials will, in
most cases, be considered public officials.
How does this classification affect charter
school officials? Generally, a private
individual establishes a prima facie
defamation case by demonstrating that a
false statement was made, either
intentionally or unintentionally, to at least one
person other than the complaining individual,
that caused injury to his or her reputation.
(Cal Civil Code §48a(2).)

Charter school principals and board
members, when suing a person or
entity for libel or slander, are now required to
make a more much difficult showing; they
must be able meet the burden of producing
“clear and convincing” evidence that the
named defendants acted with actual malice
in making the challenged alleged defamatory
statements. Essentially, charter school
principals have to prove that the defamatory
statements were made with knowledge of
their falsity or reckless disregard for the
truth, a burden that requires a much stronger
evidentiary showing than what a private
individual would have to demonstrate, mere

In Ghafur v. Bernstein, plaintiff, a principal of
a charter school, sued the Anti-
Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL),
ADL’s Regional Board Director, and the
ADL’s Regional Board Chair for libel based
on statements made in a letter written on
behalf of the ADL to the Department of
Education Superintendent urging an
into the charter school principal’s supposed
links to an Islamic terrorist organization and
a suspension of public funding for the
charter school system the plaintiff managed.

The principal claimed that the letter was
maliciously false and defamatory in stating
that she was an officer of anti-Semitic Islamic
extremist group and in linking her to the
alleged terrorist organization.

The trial court dismissed her action. The
principal subsequently appealed the lower
court’s ruling.

The primary issue on appeal was whether
plaintiff was a public official, thereby
making it necessary for the principal to
produce "clear and convincing evidence" that
the challenged statements were made with
actual malice. The court acknowledged that,
“public officials are held to a different rule
than private individuals because they assume
a greater risk of public scrutiny by seeking
public office.” Further, the court noted that
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