The Idaho Supreme Court says individuals have the right to sue if they think someone implied — but didn’t outright say — something defamatory.
The ruling was handed down Monday in a lawsuit brought by former teacher James Verity against USA Today, Boise television station KTVB, KGW television in Portland, Oregon, and others in the news industry after the organizations reported on a national investigation that showed teachers who lost teaching licenses in one state were often able to move to another state to be licensed there.
James Verity was included in the story. He lost his Oregon teaching license after he was disciplined for having inappropriate sexual contact with an 18-year-old student. Verity was later able to obtain a teaching license in Idaho.
The unanimous Idaho Supreme Court said neither USA Today nor KTVB actually defamed Verity by implication, and ordered the claims against them be dropped, along with the claims against USA Today reporter Steve Reilly and KTVB reporter Tami Tremblay. But the high court said a jury should decide if KGW or two other networks who broadcast similar but less descriptive versions of the news story committed defamation by implication because they didn’t specifically mention that the student was 18, and they didn’t clarify the nature of the sexual contact Verity had with the student.
In the ruling, Idaho Supreme Court Justice Richard Bevan noted that the news organizations contended that the creation of a “defamation by implication” standard contradicts a long-standing principle of Idaho law: That truth is a complete defense to libel and defamation claims.
“This principle remains good law; however, true statements that by context or as framed lead to a conclusion that the publisher intended or endorsed a defamatory meaning by the information published, are actionable,” Bevan wrote.
So, if someone who wants to sue for defamation or libel can prove that a false implication was made with the intent to defame, the lawsuit can go forward. The court said that’s true even in matters of public concern — such as when a teacher has a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student.
According to the court ruling, Verity and his wife Sarahna Verity both held teaching positions with the Crook County School District in Prineville, Oregon from 1998 to 2005. James Verity taught middle school and coached several sports, including high school varsity girls’ basketball and softball.
Sometime around 2005, James Verity began an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old student that he coached and used as a tutor for his middle school science class. The relationship involved more than 2,600 text messages, more than 500 hours of late-night conversations, and eventually escalated into inappropriate physical contact of a sexual nature. The ruling notes that there is no evidence that Verity actually engaged in intercourse with the student, however.
After school officials learned of the relationship in May 2005, they contacted law enforcement, placed Verity on administrative leave, and several weeks later reached a settlement in which Verity agreed that he would resign and the school district would notify the state’s teaching standards commission about the matter.
The Oregon Teaching Standards and Practices Commission investigated and revoked Verity’s teaching license, but said he could apply for reinstatement after one year. Verity did, submitting two psychological evaluations from different doctors as well. One doctor said Verity could return to teaching if he remained in counseling; the other said he should not be alone with any female student over the age of 12 “to avoid any misunderstanding on the part of the female students.”
Oregon officials declined to reinstate his license. The next month Verity applied for a teaching license in Idaho, telling state officials there that his license had been revoked in Oregon.
Idaho gave Verity a license in 2009, and he was hired in the Caldwell School District but left that job amid accusations of inappropriate behavior involving hitting students with rulers and receiving a poor teaching evaluation. He was later hired by the Vallivue School District where he worked at Sage Valley Middle School from 2014 to February 2016, resigning after various news articles and television broadcasts were published describing his conduct in Oregon and his move to Idaho.
In his lawsuit, he claimed in part that the news organizations maliciously and incorrectly implied that the sexual contact he had with the student in Oregon was illegal and that he was a danger to female students.
Several national and local news organizations, including The Associated Press and the Idaho Press Club, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the lawsuit voicing their support of the media companies named in the case. The news organizations argued that allowing “defamation by implication” lawsuits would erode free speech rights and allow journalists to be held liable for accurately reporting facts.