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Free Speech

Former School Superintendent's Defamation Lawsuit Against TV Station Can Go Forward


From Judge Robert Payne's opinion Friday in Sroufe v. [Scripps] Media Inc. (E.D. Va.) (the allegedly defamatory story is here):

William D. Sroufe, the holder of a doctoral degree in education and formerly the Superintendent of the Colonial Heights Public Schools ("CHPS") filed this action alleging a claim of defamation against "Scripps t/a WTVR and/or CBS6." … [He alleges that], on February 17, 2023, WTVR aired a news story about Sroufe's exit as the Superintendent of CHPS[, which] … was materially false because it reported that Sroufe was "ousted" when, in fact, he was not and because: (1) it falsely implied that Sroufe had covered up complaints about improper conduct on the part of the softball coach at Colonial Heights High School which allowed the coach to escape criminal prosecution; and (2) the story falsely suggested that Sroufe was fired for covering up those complaints.

It is also alleged that WTVR, through its reporter, Melissa Hipolit, knew that the allegedly false statements were false and knew in fact that Sroufe had not been "ousted" but had voluntarily resigned from his position. Moreover, … Hipolit [allegedly] knew that: (1) the sole source of the false narrative which Hipolit had so enthusiastically propagated, in fact, had told Hipolit a material falsehood about the story; and (2) the School Board's attorney actually had not only denied any cover up, but also had provided Hipolit with evidence that negated the claims asserted by Hipolit's impeached source.

The judge allowed the case to go forward, reasoning, among other things, that the "ouster" assertion was one of fact, not opinion, and was potentially defamatory:

Quite clearly, the plain meaning of the word "oust" is negative and connotes an event that is other than voluntary. And, when "oust" is linked with a reported termination of employment, well-established Virginia law permits a reasonable jury to find that the statement reasonably would be understood to be a report that the termination of Sroufe's employment was involuntary, forcible, and against his will [and, in this story, based on alleged misconduct -EV]. Indeed, considering the context of its use in this case, it might be difficult for a jury to reach any other conclusion….

And the judge concluded that Sroufe adequately alleged "actual malice," which is to say knowing or reckless falsehood on defendant's part:

As the Supreme Court of the United States held in St. Amant v. Thompson (1968), actual malice can be found if there is "sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the Defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. Publishing with such doubts shows reckless disregard for truth or falsity and demonstrates actual malice." The COMPLAINT alleges that the Defendant was on notice that the entire story was based on a highly unreliable source, one who was known to have made materially false statements on the topic. It is also alleged that, with that knowledge, the Defendant repeatedly published the statements of that source about the alleged cover up "with the high degree of awareness of their probable falsity."

In that regard, it is alleged that, by the time of the February 17 news story, Hipolit: (a) knew that [Alicia] Allen [Hipolit's source, a former assistant coach -EV] had lied to her about a material issue involving the investigation of the softball coach; (b) knew that Sroufe and the school system had not only denied the cover up accusations but had provided an objective factual basis for the denial; and (c) possessed a Virginia State Police interview report that cast doubt on the source's claims that she had previously reported specific misconduct complaints about the coach to the school system. Additionally, the COMPLAINT alleges (and provides documentary support for the allegations by way of FOIA requests and third-party emails) that Hipolit had a preconceived narrative about Sroufe and his role that she intended to foster no matter what the real facts were. Those allegations, if proven, are sufficient to establish the element of actual malice.

{The Defendant asserts, as a defense to actual malice, that it published Sroufe's claims of innocence and his denials. Although, if proven, those asserted facts could be submitted to a jury as probative of the lack of actual malice. However, the allegation of those facts in a Motion to Dismiss is not sufficient to establish a lack of malice as a matter of law.}

Richard F. Hawkins, III (Hawkins Law Firm PC) represents plaintiff.