Newspaper Did Not Defame School Official
(CN) - A high school assistant principal did not prove he was defamed by a newspaper that covered a fight involving his sons, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled.
Phillip Webb, who was an assistant principal at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, sued the publisher of the Virginian-Pilot for an article about November 2008 fight.
The newspaper reported that Webb's sons, Brian and Kevin, went to the home of Patrick Bristol to retaliate for Patrick and his friends making a confrontational visit to the Webb home two nights earlier.
At the Bristol house, the Webb boys got into a physical confrontation with Patrick's father, the article stated.
The Virginian-Pilot noted that Kevin Webb was a track star at Great Bridge High School and was allowed to stay on the team after he and his brother were charged with felonies and convicted of misdemeanors. Kevin went to college on a track scholarship.
The newspaper stated that Patrick was offered the chance to finish his senior year at a different school. He dropped out instead, got a GED and was looking into a shipyard apprenticeship, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Reporter Louis Hansen quoted a school spokesperson who denied that Kevin Webb received preferential treatment because of his father's position.
Phillip Webb complained in his libel lawsuit that Hansen's story gave the false implication that he "had engaged in unethical conduct by obtaining preferential treatment for his son."
The trial jury ruled in Webb's favor and awarded him $3 million. But the defendant moved to strike the verdict, and the trial judge agreed.
The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the ruling in the newspaper's favor despite its statement that the account of the aftermath of the fight insinuated that Kevin Webb "may have benefited from special treatment."
"Nevertheless, the article does not create a reasonable implication that Phillip solicited or procured the insinuated special treatment. It does not state or suggest that Phillip undertook any affirmative action to arrange or endorse the school system's disciplinary response to the incidents," Justice William C. Mims wrote for the court.