Utah Supreme Court: Coach not public official, can pursue lawsuit

Utah Supreme Court: Coach not public official, can pursue lawsuit

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By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A girl's basketball coach who lost his job after critics said he favored a young star can pursue a defamation lawsuit against a group of aggressive parents, the Utah Supreme Court said Tuesday.

The court said Michael O'Connor was not a public official. As a result, justices said, the parents do not get an extra layer of First Amendment protection.

O'Connor claims jealous parents who were upset that a freshman was the star on the varsity team made false allegations against him that eventually cost him his coaching job at Lehi High School.

He said he was accused of psychologically and emotionally abusing other players and mismanaging team funds.

O'Connor sued the parents in 4th District Court but the case was dismissed.

A judge said he was a public official who had to show the parents acted with "actual malice," a key legal phrase that means they knowingly made false statements or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

O'Connor appealed, and the Utah Supreme Court's decision now sends the case back to a Provo courtroom.

"We hold that Mr. O'Connor, as a women's high school basketball coach, is not a public official for purposes of defamation law," the court said, 5-0.

Pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Justice Ronald Nehring wrote: "We view the constitutional standard for public official ... to be limited to those persons whose scope of responsibilities are likely to influence matters of public policy in the civil, as distinguished from the cultural, educational or sports realms."

The court declined to rule on the parents' claim that the comments were not defaming.

"They made what we think is many improper and unfounded claims because of their desires to have their daughters star," said Joseph Rust, an attorney representing O'Connor, who wants to take his case to a jury trial.

O'Connor, who still teaches at Lehi High and coaches track and golf, took over the girl's basketball team in 2001. In his second season, freshman Michelle Harrison joined the varsity team despite her age.

She was clearly better than the older girls, and O'Connor built the team around her. After Harrison's sophomore season, parents of other players started to complain publicly and went to the principal and administrators, according to court documents.

The parents then took their complaints to an Alpine School Board meeting in summer 2004, and O'Connor was dismissed as coach a few months later.

"The coach was not subject of anything the board was doing," Rust said. "This just came up during the meeting."

Harrison, a 6-foot-3 forward, transferred to Mountain View High School in Orem before her junior year. She recently finished her first season at Stanford, one of the top women's basketball programs in the country.

An attorney who represents the parents did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-07-31-07 1738MDT

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