News

Flag on the Play? The “Common Interest” Privilege Can Protect Speaking Ill of Others in Disciplinary Actions

A recent opinion by Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals addresses the appropriateness of communications when disciplining youth sports coaches whose passion gets the best of them. The opinion has broader implications for participants in any organization or undertaking with a common interest.  

To borrow part of a quote that prefaces the court’s opinion: “Some people think sports are a matter of life and death . . . I can assure them that it is much more serious than that.”  The sport at issue in the court’s opinion was football, and the opinion arose out of a defamation lawsuit filed by a youth football coach who was aggrieved by things written and spoken about him when the league scheduled and conducted a hearing that resulted in the coach’s suspension for a year. 

Things got prickly for the coach in question when a parent (who also happened to be a league board member) complained to the board about an altercation she witnessed between the coach and a volunteer designated to monitor playing time. Her complaint alleged, among other things, that the coach used a curse word while verbally abusing the volunteer, all in close proximity to the children.   

The board addressed the complaint at its next meeting, at which the parent and the league commissioner described what they had witnessed. The league president also discussed a number of reports of prior incidents of the coach’s misconduct over the course of his several years of coaching in the league. The board voted to suspend the coach, who was not notified of the meeting and did not attend. 

The league sent an email notifying the coach of his suspension based on the report of his aggressive and abusive behavior. The email, which was copied to the league commissioner and board members, also notified the coach of his right to appeal under the league rules, which he did. The board held an expedited hearing in light of the fact that the coach’s team was playing in the upcoming championship game. The league rules provided that it be an open hearing, and several board members and parents affiliated with the league attended. The league president recounted the complaint that set the suspension process in motion, and the coach presented two witnesses and a statement from another coach denying he had engaged in inappropriate behavior. The coach was given additional time to respond after the league president recounted a series of unflattering incidents reported by other board members and parents over the years, which ranged from missed practices and games, to numerous instances of verbal assaults and confrontations in front of children, to ejections from games for foul language. The board voted to uphold the suspension. 

The coach sued the league and its president alleging various causes of action, but the only claims to survive dismissal were the defamation claims based on the president’s email notification and his statements at the suspension hearing. The coach ultimately conceded that the statements sued upon were protected by the “common interest privilege.” The common interest privilege, which is one of several qualified privileges that may be raised as a defense to a defamation claim, protects statements that are published to someone who shares a common interest or, that are published in defense of oneself or in the interest of others. The privilege promotes the broader public value of the free exchange of relevant information among those participating in a common enterprise or activity, including harsh opinions, without fear of being held liable for defamation. Although Maryland law offers no strict definition of “common interest,” the privilege has generally been applied to cover speakers and recipients “within a readily definable business or organizational relationship” such as the officials and board members in the youth football league at issue. 

The trial court held as a matter of law that the coach lacked proof to overcome the privilege, even assuming the statements were defamatory (i.e., false and damaging to one’s reputation), and granted summary judgment for the league prior to trial. Because the coach did not challenge the existence of the privilege, the only issue on appeal concerned whether the league president had abused the privilege.  A party seeking to overcome the common interest privilege has the burden of proving either: (1) that the publication was made for a purpose unrelated to furthering the social interest that is entitled to protection; or (2) malice on the part of the speaker (or “publisher”). 

The appellate court found that the league president was acting in his capacity as a league official when he sent the email notification and when he presided over the suspension hearing, all of which had been carried out pursuant to the league’s rules.  Thus, when he published the offending statements about the coach, he did so while acting within the common interest.  Furthermore, the court found that the coach lacked proof of malice, which requires evidence that the defendant not only has actual knowledge that the statement is false, but moreover, intends to deceive another by making the false statement.  The league president was found to have simply recounted what other board members and parents had reported, and the fact that the coach submitted contrary evidence did not change the character of the president’s statements. The conflicting accounts of the incident precipitating the suspension underscored the purpose of the hearing: to air out the factual disputes and arguments so the board could make its decision.  

The court observed that an open and candid process for communicating and deciding disciplinary matters promoted the league’s broader purposes, and that a threat of potential liability for defamation could discourage those affiliated with the league from addressing disputes or instances of misconduct within the league. It also noted that the interest in free expression flows both ways: whereas the league had an interest in ensuring that the president and others could speak freely while participating in the suspension hearing, it had an equally important interest in ensuring that the coach  could speak freely in his own defense.  

For more information please contact Jason Brino at 410-583-2400 or brino@bowie-jensen.com.

icon-location

210 W. Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 400
Towson, Maryland 21204