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High School Varsity Coach Not a Public Official in Minnesota

By Christopher Proczko

On September 4, 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court handed down a decision in McGuire v. Bowlin, 932 N.W.2d 819 (Minn. 2019) reversing the lower courts' decision that a public high school coach was a public official and thereby allowing his defamation suit against one student athlete's parent to survive summary judgment. The court reached this decision despite other cases holding that elementary school teachers are public officials and despite what seems an undeniable public interest—especially given recent scandals facing entities such as USA Gymnastics—the qualifications and performance of government employees with substantial and influential contact with student athletes.

Background

Nathan C. McGuire was the head coach of the girls' basketball program at Woodbury High School in Minnesota. While he was coaching, several parents alleged that McGuire behaved inappropriately towards players—for example, swearing at practice, giving a player a back rub during an away game, moving players by their shoulders and hips during practices, and flirting with players. The parents raised their complaints about McGuire to school administrators, and two months later, the school district decided not to renew McGuire's coaching contract. Several parents of student athletes, including Julie Bowlin, continued to make statements about McGuire's conduct even after he was no longer coaching.

McGuire served and filed a complaint against several parents of high school basketball players, alleging claims of defamation and civil conspiracy. The district court granted multiple summary judgment motions in the defendants' favor on various grounds, including: (1) that McGuire was a public official; (2) that McGuire was a public figure; and (3) that some of the defendants' statements were protected by a qualified privilege and McGuire had failed to establish malice. Bowlin, a pro se defendant, did not assert that her statements were protected by a qualified privilege, and the court granted summary judgment in her favor solely on the basis of McGuire's public status.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court, and McGuire petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court for further review. The court took the case to decide whether Maguire, "a public high school basketball head coach," was either a public official or a public figure for purposes of a defamation claim. Notably, McGuire did not appeal the district court's ruling that the other defendants' statements were protected by a qualified privilege. He petitioned for further review solely on the issue of his public status, the only ground on which the lower courts granted summary judgment against McGuire's claims against pro se Bowlin.

The Court's Decision

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and held that McGuire was not a public official or a public figure under Minnesota law. With respect to McGuire's "public official" status, the court determined that McGuire was not performing a governmental duty that related to "the core functions of government, such as safety and public order." McGuire's duties were specifically identified as relating entirely to the team's on-court activities: supervision of strategic team decisions such as team selection, offensive and defensive strategies, scheduling games, and general oversight over the program," as well as "decid[ing] who got court time," "set[ting] the tempo of practices," "refrain[ing] from playing girls who skipped practice," and "encourage[ing] them to try harder, or play better, or to utilize certain tactics or ideas that he had imparted beforehand or on the fly." All of these duties, the court determined, are "ancillary to core functions of government" and therefore, McGuire's position did not make him a public official. Pro se defendant Bowlin did not raise—and the court did not address—the role that varsity coaches play in preparing children for adulthood, for example, by instructing them on work ethic, sportsmanship, balancing extra-curricular activities with academic obligations, dealing with adversity, and, in some circumstances, by helping them obtain athletic scholarships. Nor did it address the outsized amount of time that many varsity coaches spend with their team throughout the course of the year and the pressure coaches are able to exert on the student athletes.

The court went on to determine that McGuire did not hold "a position to influence significantly the resolution or public issues," nor did he have or appear to have "substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs." The court noted that "high school basketball is an important piece of the social fabric in many communities," but ultimately concluded that the highs and lows of high school sports "are not the sort of issues that the public has a strong interest in debating," nor are they within the scope of government affairs that would make the coach a public official. McGuire was similarly not public figure of any kind under Minnesota law because no public controversy existed other than the controversy generated by the defendants' statements.

This decision is somewhat surprising given the accepted view that even low-level government employees are public officials, including elementary school teachers. Noting without explanation "he distinct roles teachers and coaches occupy," the court explicitly distinguished Elstrom v. Independent School District No. 270, 533 N.W.2d 51 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. July 27, 1995), where the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined public high school teachers are public officials. See also Ducklow v. KSTP-TV, 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 169, *6 (Minn. Ct. App. Mar. 3, 2014) (citing Elstrom, 533 N.W.2d at 56) (requiring second-grade public school teachers to prove actual malice to pursue defamation claims). At the same time, the court completely disregarded its decision in Weinberger v. Maplewood Review, where it assumed without fanfare that a public high school head football coach was a public official. 668 N.W.2d 667, 673 (Minn. 2003). The court briefly considered other cases holding that certain individuals were government officials—a grand juror and a juvenile probation officer—and noted that these individuals' execution of their duties "had the potential to impact a substantial portion of the public at large." According to the court, the same reasoning did not make a high school girls' varsity basketball coach a public official because, "put simply, basketball is not fundamental to democracy"—an argument that seems to ignore the fact a coach's interaction with children over the course of several seasons has the potential to seriously impact their lives in both positive and negative ways.

Christopher Proczko is an associate at Ballard Spahr in Minneapolis. Plaintiff was represented by Sharon L. Van Dyck, Van Dyck Law Firm, Minneapolis, and Fafinski Mark & Johnson, P.A., Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

 
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