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Seventh Circuit Dismisses Lawsuit Against Guidance Counselor for Defamation

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October 21, 2013

By Jackie Wernz and Jamel Greer*

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the highest federal court with jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, recently rejected a claim by a parent that a school guidance counselor’s statement to his children that he was a bad parent constituted a violation of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment of the federal constitution. In Bovee v. Broom, the court reasserted that a school district employee’s words, even if defamatory, are insufficient to cause a due process violation, unless accompanied by some other official action. The court also admonished the parties—a brother and sister apparently dissatisfied with each other’s methods of child rearing—for using the federal courts to address their sibling rivalry.

Terry Bovee sued his sister Claudia Broom for criticizing his parenting methods and calling him a bad father to his children in her role as guidance counselor at a school. Bovee claimed that the statements, made in Broom’s official role as a representative of the school district, were official state action that violated his fundamental liberty interest in familial relations as protected by the due process clause.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that Bovee failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because Broom’s words were “simple defamation,” which could not establish a due process clause violation. Broom was required to take some official action contrary to Bovee’s interest to deprive him of a fundamental right. Mere words was not enough. Judge Easterbrook, who wrote the court’s opinion, then went on to admonish the parties for attempting to resolve sibling differences through federal litigation.

Although Bovee involves unique facts that may not occur commonly in public schools, the case is an important reminder that a school employee’s mere statements in an official capacity will rarely be sufficient to establish legal liability under the due process clause. This makes lawsuits about defamatory statements less likely to succeed in federal court. School employees should remember, however, that other legal claims could be raised regarding such statements, such as a state law defamation claim. To lessen the risk of a legal challenge, school employees should avoid commenting in their professional roles on third parties, especially to students. 

* Jamel Greer, a third-year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is a Loyola Education Practicum Student. The Practicum, part of Loyola’s education law curriculum, was created to provide law students with practical experience at education law firms and organizations. Students receive academic credit for their Practicum experience.

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