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Alabama Board of Education Member Sued Paper Over Column Criticizing her Comments

In a meeting of the State Board of Education about Alabama’s test scores, Board Member Ella Bell asked and seemed to advocate about the possibility of separating disabled students into an “academy on special education” as a means to separate and prevent those students’ test scores from impacting state numbers.

In reaction to Ms. Bell’s comments AL.com published an article that criticized Ms. Bell and her comments.  The article expressed surprise that a longtime member of the Alabama Board of Education seemed to lack basic knowledge about education law and students with disabilities.  The article criticized her suggestions as obvious violations of the law, and generally took Ms. Bell to task.

In response to the article, Ms. Bell sued AL.com and the author of the article for defamation, amongst other things.  Her case was dismissed and appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The First Amendment Protects Opinions

The first amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech and limits the ability of individuals to use the courts to punish people for what they say or write.  Indeed, according to the Alabama Supreme Court, even the most derogatory statements are protected by the first amendment if they are opinions based on non-defamatory (“true”) facts.  The basis of this rule lies in the fact that where a writer discloses the facts upon which they are expressing their opinion, the reader is free to accept or reject the opinion.

Paper Doesn’t Have to Stamp “Opinion” on Article to Make it an Opinion

Ms. Bell’s main argument was that the paper hadn’t made it clear whether the article was one of opinion or as a news article.   In essence she argued the line between opinion and fact had been blurred and in particular she objected to the author’s statement that she advocated for the “institutionalization” of disabled students, even though she had not used the word “institutionalize” in her comments.

Sensational Headline Is Not Defamation

The headline of the AL.com article read: “Alabama school board member considers institutionalization for special ed students.”  Ms. Bell argued that the sensational headline (and the opening sentence) made the article defamatory.  The court rejected that position. The author of the AL.com article quoted Ms. Bell at length, said she was wrong and that she should know better.

Where to Learn More about Defamation:

  1. Learn about or read New York Times v. Sullivan which forms the basis of modern protections of speech under first amendment;
  2. Check out coverage of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s recent statements that the Sullivan case should be overturned;
  3. Read AL.com’s coverage of the decision and Ms. Bell’s reaction to the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion;
  4. Want to se an example of a successful defamation suit?  Read about a blogger who spent time in jail and was ordered to pay $3.5 million after he wrote in “absolute and blatant disregard for the truth”; and
  5. Contact the lawyers at Browne House Law in Tuscaloosa about your appeal or civil lawsuit.