The Virginia Supreme Court has had enough of defamation verdicts based on subjective statements that are relative in nature and depend largely on the speaker’s viewpoint. Such statements are statements of opinion, not fact, and cannot support a defamation verdict. A few years ago, the Court made it very clear that “ensuring that defamation suits proceed only upon statements which actually may defame a plaintiff, rather than those which merely may inflame a jury to an award of damages, is an essential gatekeeping function of the court.” (See Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies). This means that if a plaintiff files an action for libel or slander based solely on a statement of opinion, the trial court’s duty is to dismiss the case at the outset.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen, as illustrated by the recent case of William D. Sroufe v. Muriel Tamera Waldron. Mr. Sroufe is the division superintendent for Patrick County Public Schools. Ms. Waldron is a former principal of Stuart Elementary School in Patrick County. Mr. Sroufe was unhappy with Ms. Waldron’s performance, particularly in connection with her administration of Virginia’s Alternative Assessment Program (“VAAP“) for students with learning disabilities. He decided to ask the school board to reassign her to a teaching position, explaining his reasoning as follows in a letter he gave to her:
You failed to ensure that the [Individualized Education Program] Teams understand the [VAAP] participation criteria and apply them appropriately when considering students with disabilities for the VAAP. Your actions will result in students being required to take [Standards of Learning] assessments who, under a correct interpretation of the criteria, should not have been required to do so.