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COA rejects ex-teacher’s defamation claims against Elkhart Truth

April 23, 2019

A former Elkhart teacher who alleged a newspaper defamed him by writing an article about his federal lawsuit against the school that fired him failed to convince an appellate panel that the issue was not of public interest, or that the article was not written in good faith.

Kevin Pack, a former German teacher at Northridge High School in Middlebury, was terminated from his position in April 2014 after a school board hearing found he had engaged in immorality, insubordination and neglect of duty in his teaching methods. As a result, Pack filed a federal suit against the school board, alleging he was fired because he was an atheist.

Upon the federal filing, former Elkhart Truth reporter Jeff Parrott published a story about Pack’s federal claim and included in his reporting a statement saying Pack had been terminated in part because of his “incompetence” as a teacher. Pack then sue the newspaper, alleging defamation for the use of the word “incompetent.”

The Elkhart Superior Court granted the newspaper’s motion to dismiss under Indiana’s Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation Act, or the Anti-SLAPP statutes, arguing it had not acted with actual malice but instead had exercised its right to free speech on a matter of public concern.

Pack argued to an appellate panel April 2 the trial court erred in awarding summary judgment to the newspaper, asserting that the anti-SLAPP statutes did not apply to the case at hand because the published article was not in connection with a public issue. He also asserted the designated evidence created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the newspaper’s publication of the article was taken in good faith and with a reasonable basis in law and fact.

In a swift decision, the appellate court rejected Pack’s argument that the issue was not of public interest when it found all three of his arguments to that point failed in Kevin Pack v. Truth Publishing Company, Inc., and John S. Dille, III, 18A-PL-01742.

The COA found the impetus of the newspaper’s article was the federal lawsuit, not Pack’s termination. Thus, Pack’s argument that the article was published nine months after his termination had occurred was rejected because the true aim of the article had occurred less than 10 days before it was published when the federal lawsuit was filed.

It also rejected his arguments that the issue was confidential, noting that whether the newspaper’s findings were or were not confidential to be irrelevant. It lastly rejected Pack’s reliance on Gresk ex rel. Estate of VanWinkle v. Demetris, 96 N.E.3d 564, 569 (Ind. 2018), finding the facts of the case were not analogous to those in Pack, and that the Anti-SLAPP statutes did apply.

The appellate court further rejected Pack’s second claim that the article was not written in good faith or with a reasonable basis in law or fact, finding the newspaper’s designated evidence established a prima facie showing that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law under the Anti-SLAPP statutes.

“There is no dispute that, in writing the article, Parrott spoke to Pack and received an email statement from Pack’s attorney. Parrott’s affidavit also states that, in writing the article, he spoke to (Superintendent Jane) Allen; he relied on the School Board’s publicly available press release; he relied on the School Board’s findings, which he had obtained by way of an APRA request; and he relied on Pack’s filings in the federal district court.

“In other words, Parrott based the article on reliable sources; the article was not fabricated, the product of Parrott’s imagination, based on unverified anonymous sources, or based on sources wholly lacking in credibility,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the unanimous panel. 

It concluded by noting that no serious doubts were entertained in regard to the truthfulness of the article, and that its use of the term “incompetence” fairly characterized and summarized the school board’s findings and decision to fire Pack.

 

 

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