Patterico's Pontifications

11/9/2007

Blogger Mom Takes on Galveston ISD

Filed under: Blogging Matters,Education — DRJ @ 6:39 am



[Guest post by DRJ]

The Instapundit recently linked to this Galveston County (Texas) Daily News article that reported Galveston ISD’s effort to silence a mother whose blog has been critical of the school district and its leaders:

“The public school district has officially demanded that parent Sandra Tetley remove what it says is libelous material from her Web site or face a lawsuit for defamation.

Tetley received a letter Monday from the district’s law firm demanding she remove what it termed libelous statements and other “legally offensive” statements posted by her or anonymous users, and refrain from allowing such postings in the future. If she refuses, the district plans to sue her, the demand letter states.”

The school district claimed Tetley’s blog contained at least 16 libelous postings, half of which were posted by anonymous users:

“Feldman cited 16 examples of what he says are libelous postings. Half were posted by Tetley; the other half were posted by anonymous users. The postings accuse Superintendent Lynne Cleveland, trustees and administrators of lying, manipulation, falsifying budget numbers, using their positions for “personal gain,” violating the Open Meetings Act and spying on employees, among other things.

Tetley said the postings were opinions only.”

Now Tetley has retained a high-profile area attorney and is fighting back:

“Attorney Tony Buzbee warned the Galveston school board and its attorneys that they would face a tenacious and public fight if they move forward with threats of a “frivolous” defamation lawsuit.

David Feldman of the district’s law firm, Feldman and Rogers, said: “We’re not going to try this matter in the newspaper.” He declined further comment.

Buzbee — who has won millions in judgments for his clients and owns the 100-foot $4.5 million El Grande, one of the largest yachts in Galveston Bay — is representing Sandra Tetley, an angry parent whose Web site, gisdwatch.org, is the target of the legal action.”

Since retaining Buzbee, Tetley says she will not remove any postings. It sounds like Buzbee believes the best defense is a good offense:

“In his letter to Feldman, Buzbee said Tetley, the president of Oppe’s Parent Teacher Organization, is “desperately fighting to shed light on the myriad of problems at GISD” in hopes that exposing them will lead to resolution.

She has a vested interest in the workings of the district since her children attend Oppe Elementary School, Buzbee wrote. She believes in the absolute truth of every statement she’s made on her site, he said. As for the anonymous statements, Tetley cannot be legally responsible for what others post on her site, Buzbee wrote.

A lawsuit would open the district up to scrutiny and examination of every controversial issue raised on Tetley’s Web site through testimony and extensive document research, Buzbee warned. He discouraged the district’s firm from moving forward with a lawsuit. “Mrs. Tetley is not looking for a fight, but she will not be bullied,” he wrote.

Galveston is losing its middle-class student population to neighboring districts and private schools, partly because islanders believe the district is failing the children, Buzbee wrote. “Now is not the time to sue parents; it is the time to fix the system,” Buzbee wrote.

He chastised the board for its “colossal” waste of taxpayer money on a “baseless course of action” and “meritless case.” Board members are public officials and should expect to be criticized, he wrote. “The proper response by a public official to criticism is leadership, debate, discussion and compromise — not frivolous litigation,” Buzbee wrote.”

It’s fun to cheer for the underdog, even if her lawyer does own one of the biggest yachts in Galveston Bay.

H/T Instapundit.

Update here.

— DRJ

70 Responses to “Blogger Mom Takes on Galveston ISD”

  1. A little like getting the meanest, nastiest bully in town to be your personal bodyguard in his spare time. Keeps the middle level bullies at bay. I imagine not a few Galveston folks would love to see the suit come to fruition just to have the books examined in a GAO style.

    allan (e98a46)

  2. David Feldman of the district’s law firm, Feldman and Rogers, said: “We’re not going to try this matter in the newspaper.” He declined further comment.

    That’s a shame, because I’m fairly sure that the defense will. :)

    And the discovery phase should be very interesting. How much you bet the school backs off before anything gets proven true?

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  3. I might misrecollect, but off the top of my head, I don’t think you’re going to get to the discovery phase of this case.

    Apart from how bad an idea it is for the school district to act this way, I don’t think you can libel government agencies. Am I mistaken?

    –JRM

    JRM (355c21)

  4. This is the downside of the blogosphere. Whether her claims are true or not is not the point.
    Some questions come to mind:
    If her allegations have merit why haven’t the local news organizations investigated? Could it be they checked it out and found there was not enough to warrant further investigation?
    If she is so concerned what has she done in terms of going to school board and city council meetings to raise her concerns? Are her posters willing to do that?

    There used to be a time prior to the internet when a person who felt so strongly about an issue would rally support, attend meetings, cause investigations, etc.
    With the blogs we have made everyone a crack journalist who believes they carry the “truth” and never even have to get out of their seat.

    Fighting city hall is not easy. Ten years ago I took the time with my neighbors to fight city hall about a proposed mall that would be built across from our kids elementary school. By the time the last city council meeting occurred I was the last of 70 people who had come to the first meeting. The council still voted to allow the mall to be built. But because of our persistence I was contacted by a state senator who helped sponsor a lawsuit against the city (based on the tax incentive given to the mall). In the end the lawsuit was dropped because we moved to another state but the mall was never built – another developer built one a couple of miles away and they missed their window of opportunity.

    A person can make a difference. It is not easy, takes a lot of effort and disappointment. But I submit that the blogging world will never generate the support that citizens actually going out to the official meetings will generate.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  5. It’s only libel if it isn’t true.

    Which means there will be document requests, and investigation.

    And I suspect that at least some of the alligations hold some truth.

    That alone would be enough to embarass the school district into going away.

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  6. If she is so concerned what has she done in terms of going to school board and city council meetings to raise her concerns? Are her posters willing to do that?

    See the complaint regarding violations of the Open Meeting act.

    Pablo (99243e)

  7. Libel law in j-school was a long time ago for me, but I don’t think things have changed much since 1978. You can’t libel an organization, only individuals. And any GISD board members or employees bringing a defamation suit will have to prove the blogger acted with “actual malice,” which is defined as making the statements with either knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for whether they might be false. That’s a pretty high standard to have to meet, which is one reason you seldom see public officials acting in the manner that the GISD is.

    Diffus (ead439)

  8. Sounds about right to me, but I left my “legal environment of business” book at home today, so I can’t check…

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  9. I would have advised the school district to hire that guy who hijacked Kathy Seipp’s site address to put up a spoof site mirroring Sandra Tetley’s. My suggestion for the first post would have been a fundraiser to provide her with a life-time supply of Midol.

    nk (597e8b)

  10. Pablo,
    Since she qualifies everything as an “opinion” you can’t really classify it as a formal complaint can you?

    Like I said there are whiners and doers. She is a whiner. If I start a site called “Ihatepablo.com” and make all sorts of wild claims about your integrity and alleged lawbreaking activities (of course couched under the excuse that it is my opinion) it does not make it true. You would have a right to be very angry but nothing more.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  11. > David Feldman of the district’s law firm, Feldman and Rogers, said: “We’re not going
    > to try this matter in the newspaper.” He declined further comment.

    How about a blog?

    Wesson (fd354d)

  12. I’ve mentioned this before but I recommend the book “Cult of the Amateur” by Keen. It paints a rather bleak picture of where the internet seems to be taking us – blogs are a big part of it.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  13. David Feldman of the district’s law firm, Feldman and Rogers, said: “We’re not going
    to try this matter in the newspaper.” He declined further comment.

    Yup. That lawyer’s an idiot. The Supreme Court has said that that’s where it should be tried.

    nk (597e8b)

  14. Somehow Voice of Reason, you seem to have missed the fact that there have been gadflys since before the rise of the Internet.

    This issue isn’t about whether or not you agree with the woman’s mode of response to her preceived grievances against the school district, the issue is the response of a school district to criticism.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  15. Her website is actually gisdwatch.com (not .org) and is quite exhaustive and liberally tinged with her exceptionally acerbic tone throughout, to say the least.

    So the bottom lines I have taken from her “Documents” posted and other news articles is that the only school board member up for election this year was re-elected by 54% of an abysmally low voter turnout last week; overall the school district has been hemorrhaging students to private schools and in family relocations outside the district; as a result the GISD is apparently consolidating its low population campuses and projects depletions of students to continue over the next decade, and that means redrawing the district’s attendance boundaries; and GISD is drowning in remedial needs for the school population that remains and apparently failing miserably, according to test scores. Nasty stuff that.

    I applaud this gal for her endeavors, but for the life of me, I can’t find what she or anyone else really wants done in the alternative to the district’s plan, nor any proposed alteration even.

    And I have never run across a site so incendiary and expletive-ridden as this gal’s. Regardless of free speech rights, IF she is promoting untruths (which I have no way of knowing), does GISD have the right to defend itself?

    You should pour over her site. My jury is rather confused on the issue right now.

    EHeavenlyGads (5ac5e3)

  16. Unfortunately, This isn’t the only instance of government abusing the citizens. Sheboygan, WI, has an out of control mayor, (incidently born and raised in Texas and a member of La Raza) who ordered the government aparatus to go after a critical blogger. He ordered the city attorney to send an official letter demanding the blooger take down a link to the Sheboygan PD.

    Sheboygan attacks a critical blogger using city PD and Resources

    Continuing Shenanagans in Sheboygan

    Sheboygan Backs Down

    As you can read for yourselves, there seems to be a strain of idiotcy where the occupants of government office not only can’t abide criticism, but must lash out using the courts, threats of lawsuits, and even outright abuse of government powers to silence critics.

    PCD (b7be44)

  17. Take a look at orthomom blog. She actually had the same thing happen to her in the Five Towns area of Long Island. A suit was filed to force blogspot (Google) to reveal her identity and the identities of her anonymous commenters. She won. The ruling was due to the fact that the plaintiff was not defamed at all but was trying to stop postings from coming out during an election campaign. It might be an interesting precedent.

    At least this time, the blogger is being told about the suit. Check out this photo of an article that “orthomom” wrote regarding her problems. It appears that if she had not been warned by a reader of her blog, Google would have settled and “admitted” that the plaintiff was correct.

    Sabba Hillel (b3a959)

  18. Libel law is pretty specific when it states you can’t libel a government organization. The technicality used here by GISD is that the suit will be filed in the names of the superintendent and individual members of the school board, but the defense will be funded by the school district.

    Chuck Foxtrot (bec298)

  19. Whats the school district afraid of anyway are they afraid someone will expose some of their darker secrets?

    krazy kagu (fb0f9e)

  20. VOR –

    “There used to be a time prior to the internet when a person who felt so strongly about an issue would rally support, attend meetings, cause investigations, etc.
    With the blogs we have made everyone a crack journalist who believes they carry the “truth” and never even have to get out of their seat.”

    I must be missing something in your reasoning. Now with the internet, isn’t a blog a very cheap way of raising awareness about issues, especially when you might feel you can’t get satisfaction through the press or the more traditional means you suggest? I don’t understand your complaint. Having a blog doesn’t preclude taking the other steps you suggest. They aren’t mutually exclusive in my opinion. The are additive.

    daleyrocks (906622)

  21. Chuck – Where does it say expressing an opinion constitutes libel, especially if the opinion is about an organization as opposed to an individual as you suggest.

    daleyrocks (906622)

  22. “You can’t libel a government organization” meaning “Libel laws don’t apply” or “it is not legally possible for such a group to be the victim of libel”.

    He didn’t mean “you aren’t allowed to”.

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  23. Daley Rocks
    “I must be missing something in your reasoning. Now with the internet, isn’t a blog a very cheap way of raising awareness about issues, especially when you might feel you can’t get satisfaction through the press or the more traditional means you suggest? I don’t understand your complaint. Having a blog doesn’t preclude taking the other steps you suggest. They aren’t mutually exclusive in my opinion. The are additive.”

    My personal opinion is that it probably deters people from taking the the steps I suggest. Makes them less likely to go out and gather support and facts if you will. How many people have referenced wikipedia to you when debating some fact? Who is to say the commenters at her site aren’t all sock puppets? Or not?
    In addition the weakness of blogs is that there is no way to verify accuracy. Snopes makes money from debunking internet rumors.

    At this point in time I don’t see much value added with most blogs that are on the internet.

    That book I mentioned captures many of my concerns much more eloquently. Next time you are in the bookstore thumb through it if you have time.

    voiceofreason (8d93c8)

  24. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 11/09/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

    David M (447675)

  25. voiceofreason,

    Since she qualifies everything as an “opinion” you can’t really classify it as a formal complaint can you?

    No, it isn’t a formal complaint, it’s a complaint to the world at large. But she’s saying that they’re conducting business in private when it should be conducted in public, which answers the question as to whether she’s tried to involve herself in the process, as she wouldn’t know this if she hadn’t been trying to do so.

    Like I said there are whiners and doers. She is a whiner. If I start a site called “Ihatepablo.com” and make all sorts of wild claims about your integrity and alleged lawbreaking activities (of course couched under the excuse that it is my opinion) it does not make it true. You would have a right to be very angry but nothing more.

    I’m not collecting your tax dollars and educating your children. You could start that site, but you’d be dismissed as a crank with too much time on his hands. Tetley has most certainly raised awareness of her issues, which she has every right to do.

    Pablo (99243e)

  26. My personal opinion is that it probably deters people from taking the the steps I suggest.

    Is that opinion supported by any sort of evidence? It seems to me that blogging has been a conduit to real world participation for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have an awareness of the issues that move them to action…the quality of that awareness notwithstanding.

    Pablo (99243e)

  27. You can usually fix the problem or fix the blame. Both sides seem intent on the latter.

    htom (412a17)

  28. Well, the problem is you first have to know what the problems are. The School DIstrict seems upset that someone has attempted to do so.

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  29. Point 1. A government organization cannot sue for Defamation. SCOTUS, Times vs. Sullivan

    “If the government is permitted to use public resources to bring defamation claims against its critics, criticism of government will be silenced through, at the very least, fear of monetary loss,”

    Since the School District would be paying for the lawsuit, I think it will be thrown out for this reason. If the officials really want to go through with this, they’ll have to pay for it themselves.

    Point 2. To be Defamation, a statement must be asserting as fact, not expression an opinion. E.g. “Bill Clinton is a liar” vs “I think Bill Clinton is a liar”

    Point 3. To be Defamation, a statement must be false.

    Oh, and a Defamatory statement also has to damage someone’s reputation, but that is very rarely an issue.

    LarryD (feb78b)

  30. Scott,
    Perhaps it is an age thing. I’m almost 50. You?

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  31. 29. Does that somehow invalidate my arguments?

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  32. No. Just makes your perspective easier to understand and maybe vice versa.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  33. another vote for the mom. her lawyer’s gonna trash the school board, it’s a slamdunk. you can’t shut up a blogger, but if you play it wrong you can draw tenfold attention and hits to his blog.

    assistant devil's advocate (de0181)

  34. @ Scott — hey, don’t step on VoR’s logical fallacies! It’s the only logic he’s got!

    Foxfier (94990a)

  35. #34 ah another person with a blog. “I am somebody”
    Congrats

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  36. I have some experience in this area and I don’t see what voice of reason is complaining about. We had a citizen activist movement here in Mission Viejo and one complaint was open meeting law violations, in California the Brown Act. The result was a trial and conviction of the city council majority plus a consent decree that required monitoring of all closed meetings by tape recording to the judge. That was before blogs. Now, another group is going after the school board of one district and that has, so far, resulted in an indictment of the superinterdent. That group is now using a blog to keep everyone informed. VOR is assuming that the blog is the only action being taken. It may be but I wouldn’t assume that.

    Mike K (86bddb)

  37. Ah, so anyone who blogs is a useless, do-nothing whiner.

    The blog is merely a communications tool, vor. You should stop with the mindless stereotyping.

    Pablo (99243e)

  38. Would social inertia created by blogs as bitch-session steam valves leading to no action be counterbalanced by blogs as spreaders of information spurring previously uninformed “doers” to action?

    Its an interesting question. I’m a believer in the more information more people have the better.
    Any evidence either way?….anyone?

    The school board and other organizations that sue blogs mentioned above seem to believe the second possiblity, that some “troublemaker” will find out something that will upset the board’s applecart.
    ….well…. or they are worried about blogs as uniformed rabble rousing rumormills (the School boards complaint) as opposed to blogs, the new source of investigative journalism/opinion (the defense).

    EdWood (c2268a)

  39. Pablo,

    You are doing the stereotyping. Not I. There are exceptions to every situation but a few examples of blogs that accomplish community action versus the millions of other blogs does really rebut my point.
    Blogs are more fueled by emotion than accuracy or fact.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  40. Well, Mike K beat me to the post.

    EdWood (c2268a)

  41. We thank you greatly Voice of Reason for coming here and telling us how irrelevant blogs are.

    The amusement level is high.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  42. #42
    Glad to be of assistance. I know you benefit from what I have to say. And what a polite young person you are. Your parents must be proud.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  43. Yes, well, now that you’ve shared that great wisdom, I recommend a long period of rest so you don’t exhaust yourself.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  44. Aw, SPQR! You stole my response!

    Personally, I’m greatly amused that VoR was able to figure out I have a blog, but unable to read the big letters at the top which make it clear I mostly blog for friends and family.

    Pablo– dang it, man, must you keep being reasonable?

    Foxfier (94990a)

  45. No, VOR thinks that blogs blunt action coz its easier to complain than to do anything about it, or (as was pointed out above) to come up with some alternative solutions to the things the bloggers are complaining about. Some people stop at the complaining. It seems to me that the reason that institutions/businesses etc. try to “shut people up” is because even if it is just people kvetching, eventually a “doer” will come along and rally the complainers to some action.

    EdWood (c2268a)

  46. No, I recognize your cries for illumination and light. I will endeavor to shadow your posts to offer pearls of wisdom.
    I shall call you mini-VOR

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  47. Foxfier,
    Tatemi is spelled tatami – fyi.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  48. #46,
    Thanks Ed. Nice summary that captures the idea well.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  49. No, I recognize your cries for illumination and light. I will endeavor to shadow your posts to offer pearls of wisdom.

    You owe me a keyboard.

    Foxfier (94990a)

  50. #50
    Put it on my tab.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  51. You are doing the stereotyping. Not I. There are exceptions to every situation but a few examples of blogs that accomplish community action versus the millions of other blogs does really rebut my point.

    That may be the silliest bit of “logic” I read all day. It’s definitely both upside-down and backwards.

    Reread you posts, vor. It’s quite clear that, for no particular reason, you think people who blog do nothing else. You might as well make such claims about people who use cell phones, or write letters. And when asked for any evidence to support that opinion (see my #26), you ignore the question.

    I am not impressed.

    Pablo (99243e)

  52. VoR is just the grumpy old man on the corner shouting at the neighbor kids about staying off his lawn.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  53. VoR is just the grumpy old man on the corner shouting at the neighbor kids about staying off his lawn.

    *mutters* Damn kids and their music…

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  54. Pablo,
    Gyrations on your part to make the vast majority of blogs the modern day replacement for face to face contact and dialog works for you but not me.

    My main complaint about blogs is that the claims/news are not verified in many cases.

    SPQR
    Pearl#1 Respect your elders. And don’t pick your nose while on my lawn.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  55. Scott,
    When kids start listening to Hendrix, Neil Young and Pink Floyd on a regular basis I’ll quit muttering about their music.
    Please don’t tell me you are a “Breakfast Club” fan.

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  56. “My main complaint about blogs is that the claims/news are not verified in many cases.”

    ROFL.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  57. #57
    Mini_VOR

    Pearl #2: Everyone knows you really aren’t rolling on the floor. Strive for more orginal content!

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  58. No, not at all.

    More of a Hank Williams, George Jones, Led Zeplin and CCR fan…

    Scott Jacobs (91f7ff)

  59. That was a real howler there. Wow. Didn’t the congnitive dissonance give you a headache?

    JD (49efd3)

  60. #59
    Good common ground!

    Voice of Reason (10af7e)

  61. SPQR – Is calling you mini-VOR libel or slander?

    JD (49efd3)

  62. JD, it is not defamatory because no reasonable person would pay any attention to it. Yes, VoR does seem immune to what should be debilitating cognitive dissonance.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  63. if you step into a monkey cage to fling poo at the monkeys, aren’t you a monkey poo-flinger too?

    assistant devil's advocate (de0181)

  64. Gyrations on your part to make the vast majority of blogs the modern day replacement for face to face contact and dialog works for you but not me.

    Given that I haven’t done any such gyrations about blogging as a replacement for real world action, it makes you the deluded old man grumbling about the kids and their unicorns on your lawn.

    Pablo (99243e)

  65. Here’s an update on the story for any interested: Attorney warns GISD against lawsuit

    Eg (55e7d5)

  66. 29/LarryD:

    Good point 1, the cite for government being barred from bringing defamation suits. (I know Times v. Sullivan, but I’d forgotten that was the case that barred government defmation suits.)

    Point 2 – saying that “In my opinion,” eliminates libel risk – is wrong. (See: Milkovich v. Lorain Journal, a 1990 SC case.)

    Allowed: JRM is a mean, pedantic, ugly moron.

    Not allowed: JRM pitchforks infants.

    Not allowed: In my opinion, JRM pitchforks infants.

    –JRM, who can’t resist a bit of pedantry not as to this post: It’s “It’s,” it is.

    JRM (de6363)

  67. Good common ground!

    Great… Now I have to streat listening to Rap…

    Scott Jacobs (a1de9d)

  68. “…the response of a school board to criticism…”

    How quickly we forget that mere mortals are not allowed to criticize the gods of Education. Our job is to just sign over our wealth to be used by the EduCrats for their purposes; and then: Shut Up!

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  69. “Great… Now I have to streat listening to Rap…”

    Word!

    voiceofreason (e21257)


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