Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Utah Supreme Court Reinstates Former Lehi High School Girls Basketball Coach Michael O'Connor's Libel Suit Against "Helicopter" Parents

On July 31st, 2007, the Utah Supreme Court today unanimously reinstated a high school basketball coach's libel suit against parents who complained about how he treated his players. This post combines and summarizes reports from both the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News. Graphic at left courtesy of the Armenian Eagle blog, which did its own piece on "helicopter" parenting.

The high court ruled that Michael O'Connor, the former coach of the Lehi High School girls' basketball team, is not a public official. That means O'Connor does not have to prove that allegedly defamatory statements about him were made maliciously, a difficult standard to meet. However, the high court didn't address whether the parents' complaints were libelous. It merely allows O'Connor to re-file his suit at 4th District Court in Provo.

The court cited a number of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, most notably the New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, which mandate that public officials and public figures can get damages for defamatory comments only if the statements were motivated by "actual malice." There is no malice requirement for plaintiffs who have not acquired public official status by choice or circumstances. The Utah Supreme Court chose not to classify Mr. O'Connor's position as one endowed with apparent importance and therefore declined to extend "public officials status" to a high school basketball coach.

The Deseret News story adds that the Utah Supreme Court also created a new conditional privilege that shields communication relating to familial relationships from defamation as long as that communication is not false.

The controversy began while O'Connor was a girls basketball coach at Lehi High School from 2003-04, when several parents began to complain that O'Connor was verbally abusing the girls and showing favoritism towards one player perceived as the "star" while allegedly not giving other players enough time on the court. As the situation escalated, the parents even complained about O'Connor mismanaging team funds. While a school investigation found no evidence of misuse of the funds, the principal eventually removed O'Connor as basketball coach, citing his refusal to promise that he would not deny playing time to players in retaliation against their relatives, but allowed him to remain as the school's track coach and teacher for sociology and American problems.

Believing that the parents acted vindictively, and suffering damage to his reputation and community standing, O'Connor then filed a suit in 4th District Court in Provo accusing 27 parents and others of making defamatory statements to get him fired because they were jealous of the playing time received by the team's top player. The judge granted judgment in favor of the parents in January 2006, ruling that O'Connor is a public officials and that he had produced no evidence the defendants acted with actual malice.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, O'Connor then filed an appeal with the Utah Supreme Court. Included in the suit was a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Utah Education Association, arguing that public school teachers should not be considered public officials or public figures because it would deny teachers the right to seek justice against malicious defamation.

The 4th District Court in Provo must now re-instate O'Connor's suit.

Analysis: This is a double-edged sword. If an "authority figure" who's not consider a "public official" can file defamation suits against people who criticize them using official channels, this can have a chilling effect not only upon freedom of speech, but on the process of seeking redress for perceived malfeasance or abusive behavior.

However, it appears the parents may have, in their emotional fervor, crossed the line between seeking legitimate redress and launching a vigilante campaign against the coach. The original suit in district court may also have been influenced by the increasing nationwide precedence of verbal and even physical attacks on youth coaches by "helicopter" parents who believe they are more qualified than a trained coach to make decisions on when and how to use players. On their website, the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) describes the problem succinctly:

Every day in America and around the world, sports officials are physically and verbally harassed. Most incidents do not require police or medical assistance, but in some cases, the harassment turns violent. The fact that such behavior occurs at sporting events involving youth participants is appalling in itself, but the frequency in which these reports now occur is even more disturbing.

NASO receives more than 100 reports annually that involve physical contact between coaches, players, fans and officials. The nearly 18,000 member organization is not the "clearinghouse for bad behavior," says NASO President Barry Mano, but it is the belief by NASO that the reports it receives is only the "tip of the iceberg."

NASO goes on to provide a lengthy list of such attacks. It's true that some coaches do behave in a pre-emptively abusive fashion towards players, other officials, and even parents and fans, but technology now permits us a less violent way of documenting such misbehavior and obtaining redress. Of course, if a coach launches a clearly unprovoked physical attack on a player, the player's parents have the right to intervene physically in self-defense. But there is no right to threaten or assault a coach simply because of disagreement on how the player is used.

And just what are "helicopter" parents? The term evolved to describe over-protective, smothering parents who "hover" over their kids to protect them against life itself. They fail to distinguish between areas require high supervision, such as Internet use and peer association, and other areas where less intense supervision may be appropriate. According to an article published in USA Today on April 3rd, 2007, which estimates that 60-70% of parents are involved in some kind of "helicoptering" behavior, research into this phenomenom suggests that most helicoptering is by mothers who are hyper-involved with their sons' lives; fathers are more likely to use strong-arm tactics to get results. The latter is important, since aggressive behavior at youth sports events is most likely to be engaged in by males. So the upsurge in abuse of youth coaches and sports officials may be a destructive extension of "helicoptering" behavior.

The phenomenom appears to be driven by a sea change in child-rearing philosophy. At one time, parents were expected to be enforcers. If you got into trouble with another adult, you not only got corrected by that adult, but you got corrected again, often more "explicitly", by your parents after you returned home. Nowadays, if you correct a child in public, you most likely will get abused by the child's parents. And heaven forbid you even touch someone else's child; even if you merely use "restraining force", you might end up in court for child abuse. Parents are now supposed to be nurturers, cheerleaders, and jailhouse lawyers for their kids rather than enforcers. Conventional wisdom holds that the ideal is to become "the child's best friend".

And the results: More kids using guns rather than fists to resolve differences. More teenage girls dressing like whores, behaving like whores, getting pregnant out of wedlock, and seeking elective abortion as an exit strategy from the consequences. Teens have transformed a four-mile stretch of an L.A. freeway into a graffitti exhibit. And so on.

Perhaps the new "conventional wisdom" isn't so wise after all.

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