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Public figures need thicker skin

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You will learn in Monday’s Times that Massena Central School Superintendent Roger B. Clough II suddenly has grown an extremely thin epidermal layer, as he hired an attorney to threaten legal action against a Massena taxpayer who dared to stand up and ask questions at a recent school board meeting.

When Robin M. Wolpin stood up last week to speak to the board, she suggested that there is an atmosphere of fear among district teachers, and asked questions about the transfer of an employee and the hiring of an additional attorney by the board. In her questions, she did say the word “impropriety.” There is no record from our reporter on the scene, however, that she accused anyone of breaking the law or being a criminal.

And yet, Mr. Clough has seen fit to retain counsel, and direct that a warning letter be sent to Ms. Wolpin that included the threat of a lawsuit for slander. And here is his foundation for this action, according to attorney D. Jeffrey Gosch: “Ms. Wolpin, at a public Board of Education meeting, reportedly spoke slanderously of Superintendent Clough claiming he had engaged in ‘unlawful’ and/or ‘illegal’ activities. Mr. Clough has no idea what Ms. Wolpin is referencing and adamantly denies having engaged in anything unlawful or illegal as superintendent.”

So I have a couple of questions I’d like to pose to Mr. Clough, and the Board of Education. The first is, does the board really want the district superintendent threatening lawsuits against taxpayers exercising their constitutional free-speech rights? The superintendent is very much a public figure under the law, and while that standard is applied more to libel cases than to slander, in the spirit of democracy, public officials should be very, very judicious about alleging slander.

One absolute standard for slander, for example, is that it must clearly identify the slandered party and it must be made with malice and an intent to diminish the victim’s reputation. It would take a long stretch for someone standing up to a Board of Education to apply her first amendment rights by asking questions to be judged as slanderous. Simply asking about improprieties is so amorphous that it’s hard to see how anyone could decide that some individual has been accused of committing a crime. And a school district cannot sue for slander; it is a public agency and as such a ripe target for public criticism.

Ms. Wolpin says that she thinks this may be an attempt to stifle her First Amendment rights. I couldn’t agree more. Absent Ms. Wolpin pointing dramatically at the superintendent and accusing him of a heinous crime, the likelihood that asking questions about unknown or alleged events would actually point a damaging finger at a public figure is practically nil. So if this threat has virtually no chance of ending in success, what could it be other than a thinly veiled attempt to silence her?

School superintendents get paid plenty of money to take a little heat. That money comes from the folks who may wish to stand up in public and challenge their official actions. It is, after all, their dime. Mr. Clough ought to recognize that, and let them spend it as they will. It’s been my experience that the truth almost always comes out, so if Mr. Clough’s actions are as pure as he asserts, he bears little danger of being damaged.

The only real potential for damage here is to the First Amendment.

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