The Risk of Public Statements about Someone’s Behavior
Edward L. Birk Mar 22, 2018 in First Amendment
With apologies to my academic friends: it is sometimes said that arguments in academia are especially vehement because the stakes are so low. However, from the perspective of Florida community college professor Isabel Del Pino-Allen, the stakes in her defamation lawsuit against a fellow professor are very high: her employment and reputation.
Del Pino-Allen sued Juan Santelises for slander after the fellow professor allegedly made numerous false, malicious, and defamatory claims to the administration of Miami Dade College beginning in early 2015. Her complaint alleged that Mr. Santelises’s statements were untrue, that they included allegations of “frequent acts of indecent exposure” in public, and that later those untrue statements became a reason provided by Miami Dade College for firing her in May 2015.
Del Pino-Allen worked with Mr. Santelises and others on a textbook, and she believes that he made the defamatory statements as retaliation for her criticism of mistakes Santelises made in the textbook.
Santelises raised an immunity defense, arguing that his comments to the college administration were privileged and immune from liability since he is a public official. Based on this, the trial court dismissed the case without prejudice.
However, the appeals court said not so fast – there was no proof that the defendant was a government official or had some supervisory duty over the plaintiff that would justify public official immunity. The public official privilege is designed to protect public officials when they’re doing the public’s business because we want our officials to speak freely on our behalf. But the privilege does not apply all public employees in all settings.
So Del Pino-Allen will get her day in court after all. The lawsuit, pending in Miami circuit court, is Isabel del Pino-Allen v. Juan Santelises, Fla. 11th Jud. Cir. Case No. 16-29615.
The case is a good reminder that public statements about someone’s personal behavior, moral makeup, and professional qualifications are risky topics if a speaker doesn’t have the facts to back up his statements.
Marks Gray, P.A. and I represent clients in all types of libel, slander, and defamation lawsuits. We would be honored to help you evaluate any questions you might have about these subjects. Please contact me at 904-807-2179 or [email protected].Share