Free Speech

Criminal Libel for High School Student to Falsely Write That He'd Had Sex with Teacher

Louisiana is one of about a dozen states that has a criminal libel statute; my sense is that, throughout the country, there are likely about 20-30 criminal libel prosecutions per year.

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This is from earlier this year, but I just came across it; it's State in the Interest of G.J.G. (La. Ct. App.), written by Judge Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, and joined by Judges Van Kyzar and Jonathan Perry:

G.J.G. is a student at Grand Lake High School. In December 2018, G.J.G. sent a message to the SouthernSchemers' Snapchat account stating, "I f***** my ag teacher best p**** I've had." The message was then posted by SouthernSchemers onto their story, which consisted of messages from students describing sexual conduct with teachers…. [When interviewed by the police,] G.J.G. admitted that he sent the message and that it was false….

Louisiana Revised Statutes 14:47 states:

Defamation is the malicious publication or expression in any manner, to anyone other than the party defamed, of anything which tends:
(1) To expose any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or to deprive him of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse ….

"Malice (or fault), for purposes of the tort of defamation, is a lack of reasonable belief in the truth of the statement giving rise to the defamation." "Malice in this sense is more akin to negligence with respect to the truth than to spite or improper motive." In the context of criminal defamation, "malice involves intent, and such intent may be inferred by circumstances connected with or surrounding the transaction." …

There is no doubt that G.J.G. lacked a reasonable belief in the truth of the statement. He admittedly knew that it was false. Moreover, the act was done intentionally. G

.J.G. argues that he did not intend to refer to Mrs. Montie, and the text did not mention Mrs. Montie by name. However, the message asserted that he had been intimate with his "ag teacher." Mrs. Montie had taught him "ag" the year before and was currently teaching him carpentry, a class in the "ag" department. Mrs. Montie is the only female "ag teacher" at Grand Lake High School. It is evident that his "ag teacher" is Mrs. Montie.

G.J.G. knew that the content of the message was false, and he intentionally sent it to SouthernSchemers for the purpose of having it added to their story about students' sexual conduct with teachers. Thus, in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a reasonable trier of fact could find that the element of malice was proven….

Additionally, La.R.S. 14:48 provides, "Where a non-privileged defamatory publication or expression is false it is presumed to be malicious unless a justifiable motive for making it is shown." Louisiana Revised Statutes 14:49 provides:

A qualified privilege exists and actual malice must be proved, regardless of whether the publication is true or false, in the following situations:
(1) Where the publication or expression is a fair and true report of any judicial, legislative, or other public or official proceeding, or of any statement, speech, argument, or debate in the course of the same.
(2) Where the publication or expression is a comment made in the reasonable belief of its truth, upon,
(a) The conduct of a person in respect to public affairs; or
(b) A thing which the proprietor thereof offers or explains to the public.
(3) Where the publication or expression is made to a person interested in the communication, by one who is also interested or who stands in such a relation to the former as to afford a reasonable ground for supposing his motive innocent.
(4) Where the publication or expression is made by an attorney or party in a judicial proceeding.

None of the sections of La.R.S. 14:49 apply to the message in question. Therefore, it was an unprivileged expression. There is no question that the message was false. The only motive which G.J.G. gave for sending the message was that it was a joke. As the expression was false and no justifiable motive for making it was shown, the message was presumptively malicious.

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  1. “G.J.G. admitted that he sent the message and that it was false…”

    Which part?

  2. Well, that certainly seems like a good use of taxpayer resources.

  3. Hard for me to believe that anyone would take seriously any such bragging by any high school student, especially a collection of such bragging.

    1. I agree.

      I could make a list of all the high school teachers I wanted to have sex with, but I wouldn’t’ve said it actually happened.

      1. I didn’t have any high school teachers I wanted to have sex with. The assistant librarian, on the other hand……

  4. What a terribly-written opinion.

    What is the “SouthernSchemers’ Snapchat account”? What is an “ag teacher”?

    I don’t like it when judges go overboard defining their terms and abbreviations in the first paragraph, but give me something here.

    1. “Ag” = agricultural education. In the South and West, we have those.

      On a different topic, It’s great to see that at least some portions of America still have working libel laws, administered fairly and quickly. Sadly, they are apparently only effective against little people, as opposed to media behemoths or politicians.

    2. Those are not the judges’ terms or abbreviations. “Ag teacher” was the defendant’s term; it’s not the judges’ job to interpret the defendant’s words.

      And what is missing in “the ‘SoutherSchemers’ Snapchat account”? It’s a Snapchat account with that name. How does that need further explanation?

      1. It’s like calling a blog a “Conspiracy.”

  5. One notable thing here is “of and concerning”. And it’s worth noting because it is a common trope of people who don’t know defamation law to say ‘well he never mentioned her name”. For instance, a ton of people on Twitter seized on the fact that Hillary Clinton never mentioned Tulsi Gabbard by name in the statement that drew Gabbard’s libel suit, eventually dismissed.

    But never mentioning the plaintiff’s name is not a defense to libel. As long as reasonable readers can tell who the statement refers to, it can still be actionable.

  6. I mean, it was obviously a joke, right? That shouldn’t be actionable. It looks like the court used the fact that it was a joke to demonstrate malicious, which, I mean I’m not a practicing lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t how that works?

    1. IANAL
      It may have been a joke… but it was negligent in that it could reasonably be expected to cause harm to the teacher to imply that she had inappropriate relations with a student and potentially a minor. Malice in law does not mean malicious intent but is negligence in a situation where a reasonable person would know better. I agree it is confusing and a sever misuse of the word malice. But it is what it is… I only learned of this myself not too long ago.

    2. It had the potential to devastate the life of the target of that “joke”.
      I have never thought publicly accusing someone of a sex crime and a felony to be all that funny myself.

    3. “I mean, it was obviously a joke, right? ”

      I think this is correct. There doesn’t seem to be any analysis about whether or not the kid intended to be believed or whether a reasonable person would believe him.

      1. Nor should there, I think, at that stage of the case. If I’m reading the article correctly, this was a decision about the defendant’s motion to dismiss. That’s why the decision says “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution”. Proof of malice (with no deference to either side) would be something for the jury to decide – which I assume has not yet occurred?

        1. No, this was an appeal of G.J.G.’s conviction (or the juvenile court equivalent of a conviction).

          1. Then I am very confused. At that point in the case, why would the court say “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution”? Even at the appeals level, why would that be an appropriate standard?

            1. That’s the standard when challenging the sufficiency of evidence after a conviction. Quoting SCOTUS: “Instead, the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. “

              1. Ah, so it’s really deference to the trial judge. Thanks, I’m a little slow on the uptake today.

    4. No, it was not obviously a joke. An accusation like that can destroy a person’s life. Without this prosecution to point to, that teacher might never work again. I don’t know how the case came to the police’s attention, but one possibility I can very easily imagine is that they started out interviewing the kid with a view to prosecuting the teacher, and were disappointed to hear him recant the accusation.

      1. “I don’t know how the case came to the police’s attention, but one possibility I can very easily imagine is that they started out interviewing the kid with a view to prosecuting the teacher, and were disappointed to hear him recant the accusation.”

        It came about because the teacher called the cops. If this sort of thing can “destroy a person’s life” then that’s what we need to fix. Kids are kids.

        Kids talk about sex all the time. All boys say that they are are having sex with all the good looking girls in school, and the good looking teachers as well. Girls either do the same thing, or say it about other girls.

        If people are taking this kind of talk seriously, they need to stop.

        1. How do you propose fixing it?

          If the teacher had sex with a student she should be dismissed and probably go to jail, it happens from time to time.

          If the kid did it to get even for something the kid should be held responsible.

          1. Fixing what? In general you should disregard rumors about sex, especially among teenagers. If there’s credible evidence of misconduct, you should investigate. But a teenage boy saving that he fucked somebody is generally not credible evidence of anything.

      2. No, it was not obviously a joke. An accusation like that can destroy a person’s life.

        Indeed it could, but this — based on my limited understanding of what SouthernSchemers is — was not an accusation at all. If GJG had gone to the police and filed a report, that would be an accusation. (He in fact did the opposite when confronted by police.) This was more like a stupid bragging post on social media.

    5. The state should charge him with defecation of character in the first degree.

  7. Judge Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux.

    That is all.

  8. How about an old-time punishment? Make him write by hand, in neat cursive script, “I must not lie about my teachers or about my sex-life,” ten thousand times, using ball-point pens.

  9. So how old was the student G.J.G. at the time this happened?? I can’t find that anywhere in the decision other than he is described as a juvenile. Isn’t it very relevant whether he was 10 years old vs 17 yo when he made this claim? It would very much affect whether any reasonable person would take this claim of sex with a teacher seriously.

    1. I didn’t see his age, but he is a high school student.

  10. “Malice (or fault), for purposes of the tort of defamation, is a lack of reasonable belief in the truth of the statement giving rise to the defamation.”

    This happens 100 million times everyday on social media.

    Also, since the teacher is a public official, doesn’t that make the burden higher (i.e. Sullivan, Flynt, etc.)?

    1. It does make the burden higher, but the defendant had certain knowledge of the statement’s falsity, and only uttered it maliciously.

    2. This is a criminal defamation case, not a tort case. I don’t think Sullivan, Flynt, etc. apply to criminal defamation.

      1. 1. The court concluded the teacher isn’t a public official (though higher-level employees might be).

        2. Cases like New York Times v. Sullivan do apply to criminal defamation, see Garrison v. Louisiana (1964).

  11. My understanding is that criminal defamation is usually not just defamation, but defamation with the purpose or effect of causing a breach of the peace. Louisiana law says criminal defamation is just… any defamation.
    Plus, in Louisiana, you can be convicted of defaming the dead!

  12. The kid deserves some credit for immediately admitting the truth when confronted by the police. If he had chosen to double down on a false accusation, there were plenty of advocates and media who would have backed him to the hilt.

    1. Or, the kid should have shut up.

  13. We’re heading for a collision with the youngest generation.

    Young kids swap stories and they judge them by the likes they get, not by the truth. To them, truth is irrelevant, only the likes count. No doubt, that boy and his friends are shocked that the adults would try to impose such a thing as defamation on them.

    In another 20-30 years, that generation will be holding the reins of power. We can only hope that their views on truth will modify before then.

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