(CN) – A school superintendent was protected by the First Amendment when he alleged during a campaign that a school board member had broken the law, the New York Court of Appeals ruled.
Larry Schulman was seeking re-election to the Commack Board of Education when superintendent James Hunderfund circulated an anonymous flyer on the night before the election. The flyer alleged that Schulman “broke the law” by awarding a “lucrative food service contract to one of his business associates.”
As a board member, Schulman does not have the power to award contracts by himself, but he and the board did approve the contract. He convinced his fellow board members to grant the contract to Whitsons, a customer of Schulman’s communications support business.
Schulman lost the election and sued for libel. He won a judgment of $100,000, which was upheld by an appellate division. However, Judge Smith ruled that the case should be dismissed because Hunderfund did not commit actual malice.
As a public figure, Schulman has decided to participate in “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” political debate, Smith ruled. Therefore, in order to be libeled, he must he the victim of statements that the alleger knows to be untrue.
In this case, Hunderfund believed the accusations against Schulman were true.
“Because the record does not clearly and convincingly show that Hunderfund knew Schulman to be innocent,” Smith wrote, “of any legal transgression, Schulman’s case must fail.”