New School of Orlando v. McSween: Florida School Sues Blogging Parent for Defamation

On October 26, 2007, the New School of Orlando sued Sonjia McSween, the parent of a former student, in Florida state court, asserting claims of libel, slander, and tortious interference with business relations.

According to the New School's complaint, McSween started a blog called "Say NO to New School of Orlando" (no longer active) after withdrawing her daughter from the school during her first grade year. On the blog, McSween criticized the school's treatment of students and described her family's negative experience with the school. Attached to the complaint are copies of the relevant pages from McSween's blog. Some of the statements described as defamatory in the New School's complaint include:

Who should choose New School of Orlando?
If your child is a mini Stepford Wife, this may very well be the school for you. If your child thrives under extreme stress and dictatorial conditions, this may well be the school for you. If your child doesn't mind being belittled, this may be the school for you. If your child loves to have work belittled because letters are not perfectly formed, this may be the school for you. If your child doesn't mind not having his/her emotional needs met, this may very well be the school for you.

Who shouldn't choose New School of Orlando?:
If your child needs love, in the form of hugs or even just genuine praise for a job well done, this isn't the school for you. If your child becomes anxious under undue stress, this isn't the school for you. If your child has any emotional, learning or physical problems (even minor such as ADD, ADHD) this isn't the school for you. If your child doesn't fit into a perfect mold, this isn't the school for you. If you as a parent do not appreciate being told how to run your home when your child isn't at school, then this definitely isn't the school for you.

The complaint also objects to a statement speculating that the New School might have been receiving "kick-backs" from a school psychologist in return for student referrals.

In response to complaints from the school, McSween moved the disputed statements first to another blog, and then to her MySpace page. (For more details, please see the CMLP's related database entries, New School of Orlando v. McSween and New School of Orlando Preparatory v. McSween (Letters).)

On first glance, most of McSween's statements do not appear to make or imply factual statements that can be proven true or false. What exactly are "dictatorial conditions" and who's to say when a child is under "extreme stress"? How can the school show that it meets the emotional needs of its students? Plus, the "If your child" refrain contributes to an overall sense of hyperbole rather than to assertions of concrete fact.

The statement about "kick-backs" is potentially a different matter. This sounds like a statement of fact, and a damaging one at that. But look at the statement in context (excerpted from attachments to the New School's complaint):

The 2006-2007 school year brought new questions as pieces started to fall into place. Was it possible that New School of Orlando was receiving kick-backs from Dr. Collier for these referrals? Why was the school so adamant that the parents use Dr. Collier's services? And why were 95% of the children referred for testing from homes New School calls "Problem Homes" - children of single parents, children of divorced parents and mixed race children? From my point-of-view these children were all bright and VERY NORMAL.

To be sure, putting a question mark at the end of her sentences doesn't insulate McSween from liability. On the other hand, she expresses the "kick-backs" statement as speculation or opinion based on underlying facts -- that the school was "adamant" about using those services; that 95% of children referred were from "problem homes," but were otherwise normal. If these underlying factual assertions are true, then McSween might be entitled to state her opinion even if it's wrong or unreasonable, but this is certainly not an easy call.

One last point: some of the news reports (here, here, and here) are indicating that the school sued McSween "to stop her from publishing and talking about the school . . . ." Stated this way, the lawsuit seems a more outrageous infringement on free speech than it really is. Like many complaints in defamation actions, the New School complaint requests an injunction prohibiting McSween from "making any further defamatory, libelous, slanderous, and/or disparaging statements regarding New School, on or through any media, and such other and further relief as the Court may deem proper." Courts rarely grant these kinds of injunctions, even if narrowed to apply only to statements found defamatory after trial. But see Balboa Island Village Inn, Inc. v. Lemen, 156 P.3d 339 (Cal. 2007) (injunction barring speech that trial court found defamatory not invalid prior restraint, but overbroad to extent it prohibited defendant from presenting her grievances to government officials). In any event, this is a far cry from seeking an injunction barring McSween from "publishing and talking about the school."

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