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Unsubstantiated accusations in the Internet age

Two huge legal principles clashed in last week’s Washington Supreme Court decision holding that the privacy rights of teachers trump public disclosure in cases where allegations of sexual misconduct were unsubstantiated. The case, Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue Sch. Dist. No. 405, resulted in a 6-3 split on the court.

Behind the scenes, playing no role in the legal ruling but surely on the minds of the nine justices, are two developments of recent years that have changed both the playing field (literally) and the stakes in public disclosure.

The case itself reflects a classic issue of the public’s right to know, as represented by Washington’s vigorous Public Records Act, and the right of teachers (or public employees generally) to maintain privacy in personal matters.

The court ruled that schools must disclose records where the teacher has been disciplined or when a letter of direction refers to a specific instance of misconduct. But in cases where the allegations have not been substantiated, or a letter of direction does not name specific cases, the name of the teacher may be redacted from the public record when it is released.

Journalists generally support full disclosure in this case and can point to an outstanding 2003 investigation by The Seattle Times, disclosing numerous cases of sexual misconduct or allegations against coaches in the public schools. The Times was a party to the appeal of a state Court of Appeals ruling.

What the Times found, and argued to the Supreme Court, was that school officials avoid taking responsibility for bad actors, providing only a verbal warning or a general letter of direction rather than opting for disciplinary actions that would be open to public view. The Times has some good fodder for this argument.

As a 30-year journalist who has played a serious role in public disclosure and reporter-shield efforts, my normal inclinations go with the Times and other newspapers. But as a teacher later in my career, and as the husband and father of teachers, I think the court ruled properly. There is a McCarthyite tint to the idea that a person’s entire career can be ruined by unproven and perhaps malicious charges and the suggestion that innocence, rather than guilt, must be proven when sexual abuse is charged.

What makes this case additionally important — for both sides — are a couple of changes in the way we do school sports and the way the news is reported. (The case, of course, is not limited to coaches, but because of the way coaches must relate personally to students, they are particularly vulnerable.)

In my days as a student, coaches were almost invariably full-time teachers (some may recall coaches teaching driver training to fill a slot). But since the advent of Title IX broadened the field of school sports to bring in a host of sports for women, and then new sports for both men and women (soccer, lacrosse, etc.) in recent years, coaches are likely to come from outside the faculty. Former players, coaches of youth teams, and just interested dads wind up coaching, or helping to coach, public school teams. They cost a lot less than faculty members, but the practice opens the doors for predators who are not as easily monitored as certified teachers. Keeping track of these part-timers is a big problem, and they can easily move from one community to another. This would seem to argue for the full disclosure of allegations because of the danger of misconduct by unsupervised personnel.

The other element that has changed is the media itself. No longer does the term cover only mainstream newspapers and broadcasters; anyone willing to call himself or herself a blogger has access to thousands of readers, without the traditional vetting of professional editors. Opening personnel records will open them to the public at large — and with the Internet, that means Web sites of dubious ethics and agendas. A public record is a public record.

Even a simple group e-mailing can cover most of a small community in a matter of seconds.

Nothing kills an education career faster than the public accusation of any sort of sexual misconduct, and that extends to allegations that are unsubstantiated. Many people adopt the rule “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and a vindictive student or parent can drive an educator from his or her profession with rumors. In the case of publication of unsubstantiated charges, disclosure amounts to publication of a rumor. In today’s wide-open media and Internet culture, too many rumors are taken and circulated as truth, with devastating consequences to the subject of the rumors. The Supreme Court seems to understand that.

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