You know, the obnoxious parent who stands up at every school board meeting, making the same boring point week after week, month after month, finally slipping into accusations about the ethical behavior of the board members and administrators who do not jump to the parent’s wishes — yeah, that one.
She’s a thorn in the side of any district governing board, but often enough correct about new policies, and sometimes in exposing wrongdoing, that most boards tolerate the barbs and try to fix the problems legitimately pointed out.
But what if the parent “thorn” has a blog?
The drama unfolded in Galveston; as of right now, it looks as though the district will back down from its threat after the blogger held fast; surely this will not be the last of such stories we see.
The school district in Galveston, Texas, threatened to sue a parent for views expressed on her blog. It alleged libel. Slashdot had one of the earliest rundowns, including the fatal flaw in the district’s complaint and how it tried to deal with it:
“A Texas School District is threatening to sue a parent over what it terms ‘libelous material’ or other ‘legally offensive’ postings on her web site and are demanding their removal. Web site owner Sandra Tetley says they’re just opinions. The legal firm sending the demand cited 16 items, half posted by Tetley, the rest by anonymous commentators to her blog. The alleged libelous postings ‘accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland, trustees and administrators of lying, manipulation, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” violating the Open Meetings Act and spying on employees, among other things.’ The problem for the district is that previous courts have ruled that governments can’t sue for libel. So now, in a follow-up story, the lawyers say the firm ‘would file a suit on behalf of administrators in their official capacities and individual board members. The suit, however, would be funded from the district’s budget.’ So far, Tetley hasn’t backed down, although she said she’ll ‘consult with her attorneys before deciding what, if anything, to delete.’”
The site is dedicated to watching the Galveston Independent School District, GISD Watch, by concerned parent Sandra Tetley.
According to the Galveston Daily News:
[David]Feldman [of the district's law firm, Feldman and Rogers,] said Tetley’s Web site — www.gisdwatch.com — contained the most “personal, libelous invective directed toward a school administrator” he’s seen in his 31-year career.
“It is not the desire of the School District, the Board, or this Firm to stifle free expression or inhibit robust debate regarding matters pertaining to the operation of the public schools,” Feldman wrote in the demand letter. “This is solely about the publication of materials that clearly go beyond that which is legally and constitutionally encouraged and permitted, and into the realm of what is legally offensive and actionable.”
Feldman cited 16 examples of what he says are libelous postings. Half were posted by Tetley; the other half were posted by anonymous users.
The postings accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland, trustees and administrators of lying, manipulation, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” violating the Open Meetings Act and spying on employees, among other things.
Tetley said the postings were opinions only.
“Everyone deserves to have their opinion,” she said. “I don’t think they have a right to make me, or anyone else, take down criticisms of them off the Web site. They’re not going to force us to take off our opinions because we have no other place to go.”
The Drudge Report posted a story about the case, attracting 64,000 viewers. Tetley hired Galveston attorney Tony Buzbee, who has had great success suing institutions in Galveseton. Buzzee warned the district that his client would strongly fight against any suit filed against her.
As of November 10, district Superintendent Lynn Cleveland said the district would probably drop legal action, to focus on delivering education to students.
Quite a drama in two or three weeks. Press freedom won out.
On the one hand, no one likes to be sued for libel. On the other hand, Ms. Tetley knows the school district’s leaders are paying attention to what she says.
What’s the moral of this story?
Tip of the old scrub brush to Pamela Bumsted, who alerted me to this by e-mail.