Last Updated on July 28, 2022 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995
Have you ever been lied about and those lies hurt you in some way (e.g. lost friends, lost job, expelled)? Negative statements about ourselves, particularly falsehoods, make us hopping mad. Can minor students who spread false statements be liable for their statements? Yes, if that statement is defamatory.
Defamation Found by Jury After Molestation Lies
In November 2013, a Santa Clara County jury reportedly found several young students (girls 10 and 11 years old at the time of the incident(s)), along with their parents, guilty of defamation for lies they told about a private school teacher, John Fischler, alleging he molested them and peeked in their bathroom.
One girl had to pay punitive damages as she spread the lies with malice aforethought (basically intention to harm). The other students and parents reportedly got off with a mere $362,653 bill to the teacher, who had to defend against the allegations and had his workplace poisoned against him.
Factual Statements are Protected
This was quite a story, and the attorney for the students mentioned that a “chilling effect” might occur from this verdict, which could prevent true reports from being lodged, for fear of lawsuit. It is true: some students or parents may not come forward due to fear. However, factual student statements are protected.
Lying Has Big Consequences in Schools
Lying in the school setting does happen. For example, I have seen young men who were falsely accused of wrongs by ex-girlfriends, or scorned lovers (and their friends). The false communications caused recommendations for student expulsion for purported sexual harassment and battery.
Many remember the false accusations against Duke Lacrosse team members in 2006, where the college students were falsely accused of rape. Ultimately, the students were cleared, but not without over a year of struggle and infamy (negative) which will never go away. The lies in that student case led to the Lacrosse coach being forced to resign, and ultimately the disbarment of the District Attorney for his role in the matter.
Student Expulsion, Suspension and Discipline May Result from False Student or Parent Statements
It is hard to know when a student is telling the truth or not. Having reliable honest student statements is extremely important in many contexts. In expulsions and/or student discipline matters, student statements are taken as evidence of wrongdoing. They can lead to student searches, a criminal allegation, a bad impression about the student and unfair school discipline, such as expulsion or suspension.
In expulsion hearings, student statements are allowed in as evidence, even hearsay statements (e.g. he said she said with no direct knowledge). Often student, or other witnesses, do not testify at an expulsion hearing, while their written statements may be accepted as evidence. This is problematic for any student accused and the attorneys who defend student expulsions.
False Filings Can Result in Unfair Punishment
False student statements can also get teachers or school staff in trouble via the uniform complaint or other complaint process. A student may file a complaint against a teacher or school staff members for alleged wrongs. The complaint should then be investigated by the school and/or school district and may make it up to the school board level.
If complaint statements are fictional and defamatory, only trouble can follow for the person lied about. No matter how much a teacher, student, or school staff member is disliked, blatant and purposefully false statements should not be made.
Speak the Truth Only
Parents and students need to understand that any and all complaints or statements to schools should be factual. It is risky to do otherwise, as this Santa Clara story shows us.
[Some additional information about defamation (harmful false statements) and its subcategories of libel (written statements) and slander (verbal statements) can be found here.]
Parent and student lawyer Michelle Ball assists parents with school issues, hopefully prior to families taking matters into their own hands and potentially causing the student or parent harm. As an education attorney located in Sacramento, California, Michelle helps families with school problems in public, private and college settings across the state including in Santa Clara, Roseville, Redwood City, Merced, Turlock, Auburn, Elk Grove and many other locations.