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Idaho Court Allows Ex-Teacher's Libel Claim to Proceed Against TV Station

Idaho's highest court has ruled that a public school teacher is generally not a public figure or official for purposes of defamation law, and thus a former teacher suing several news outlets and reporters need not prove they acted with actual malice in stories about sexual misconduct that the teacher alleges are defamatory.

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled 5-0 to allow the former teacher's claim of implied defamation against an Oregon TV station to go to trial. But it held that similar claims against USA Today and an Idaho TV station, as well as two reporters, did not constitute implied defamation, which is communication that is not defamatory on its face but through context or omission of certain facts.

The nuanced ruling came March 4 in Verity v. USA Today. And since it is an allegedly careless summary of the facts that now has the Oregon TV station facing potential liability for defamation, it is worth a somewhat detailed discussion of those facts.

James Verity taught middle school and coached sports at the Crook County school district in Prineville, Ore., from 1998 to 2005. In the spring of 2005, court papers say, Verity began an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old female student, which involved many text messages, phone conversations, and notes between the two. The relationship escalated to "inappropriate physical contact" of a "sexual nature," the Idaho Supreme Court said, but there was no evidence the pair engaged in sexual intercourse.

School district officials learned of the relationship, and after an investigation, Verity agreed to a settlement in which he resigned from the district. The Oregon Teaching Standards and Practices Commission investigated and revoked Verity's teaching license in 2006. A year later, Verity applied for reinstatement, based on a psychologist's recommendation that Verity could return to teaching if he remained in counseling. But a second psychologist concluded that Verity should not be left with female students 12 and older. The commission declined to reinstate Verity's license.

In 2008, Verity applied for an Idaho teaching license, disclosing that his Oregon license had been revoked. After his application was initially denied, Verity continued with counseling and appealed to the Idaho Department of Education's professional standards commission, which approved his license.

Verity worked in the Caldwell school district from 2010 to 2014, and he was working in the Vallivue school district from 2014 to 2016 when USA Today and its investigative reporter Stephen Reilly published an extensive story about flaws in teacher screening that allowed teachers with troubled pasts to find new jobs. The report was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting in 2017.

Verity's tale was highlighted in a sidebar story as part of the USA Today package. Reilly reported that Verity had disclosed to his principal in the Vallivue district that his license had been revoked in Oregon. But he quoted the superintendent of the Caldwell district as saying he was unaware of the license revocation when Verity was hired there. 

KGW-TV, in Portland, Ore., and KTVB-TV, in Boise, Idaho, both aired reports based on the USA Today story, which led Verity to resign. Verity and his wife, Sarahna, sued the three outlets for defamation and other state-law claims.

A state trial court allowed the claims to go forward against all three organizations on the theory that their reports implied three false assertions: that Verity was a danger to female students; that he had deceived Idaho officials by hiding his past misconduct; and that he had committed a crime by having sex with a minor.

The Idaho Supreme Court granted appeal and ruled on several issues. First, it held that Verity was not a public official or figure for purposes of libel law, which is significant because it means he would not have to prove that the news organizations acted with actual malice. Public officials are viewed as voluntary participants in the "rough-and-tumble" of the public arena, the state high court noted.

"Verity lacked access to a bully pulpit and the USA Today article was published nationally, so any influence Verity could have had to defend his reputation as a public schoolteacher would be minuscule," the court said.

The court noted that states have split on the issue of whether teachers are public officials, but "we hold that in Idaho a public teacher working in a teaching capacity will rarely, if ever, qualify as a public official."

The court discussed at some length the elements of implied defamation under Idaho law before applying those standards to the news reports challenged by Verity.

The court said the USA Today and KTVB reports were specific in stating that a psychologist had recommended that Verity not be left with female students over the age of 12, both for their protection and his. The court said USA Today never implied that Verity had sex with a minor. KTVB was imprecise in its description, but did state that the student in a relationship with Verity was 18, the court said. And both outlets focused blame on state reporting systems and the national database for the fact that Verity could obtain an Idaho license after his Oregon license was revoked.

With respect to KGW, the state high court allowed one claim to go to a jury: that the station's report aired statements that Verity had a "sexual relationship with a student," and that he had been disciplined for it.

"KGW never mentioned the student was 18, nor did it clarify the nature of the sexual contact," the court said. "The nature of the broadcast and its context also plays into this conclusion, leaving for a jury to consider whether KGW intended or endorsed the idea that Verity committed a sexual crime against a minor."

This case will continue against one defendant, but the episode holds lessons for educators and the news media.

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