A federal judge has thrown out a charter school's claim that the American Civil Liberties Union defamed it when it filed a lawsuit that accused the school of using public money for religious purposes.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled that Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, often known as TiZA, is a public entity and therefore can't sue for defamation — and that even if it could, it hadn't proved that the ACLU's statements were false and were made with "actual malice."
The ruling Wednesday sets the stage for a hearing Jan. 8 on a motion by the Inver Grove Heights school to have the civil liberties group's suit thrown out.
The ACLU of Minnesota sued the charter school, its directors, Islamic Relief USA and Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren in January, claiming the school was using taxpayer money to support religion. The school, which also has a campus in Blaine, has a student body that is predominantly Muslim.
The ACLU claimed the school's use of public funds violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, as well as the Minnesota Constitution. The civil liberties group claimed that the school leased space from Muslim organizations and that "excessive lease payments" amounted to a transfer of public funds to those religious groups.
The school also "advances, endorses and prefers Islam over other religions or nonreligious approaches in connection with school activities and fosters entanglement between government and religion," the ACLU contended.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, has said the K-8 charter school with more than 400 students is "in essence, a private religious school."
"This is not a sectarian school that focuses on Middle Eastern culture," Samuelson asserted. "This is a pervasively Muslim school that teaches religion."
TiZA responded to the suit in July and filed a five-point counterclaim. The academy said the state ACLU group was interfering with the school's dealings with its sponsors, parents, employees and "prospective contractual relationships."
TiZA is seeking $500,000 in damages.
In particular, the charter school claimed the ACLU of Minnesota and Samuelson had defamed TiZA. In its answer to the counterclaim, though, the civil liberties group argued that TiZA couldn't be defamed because it is a public entity.
Lawyers for the academy contended that because it was a nonprofit corporation set up to run a public charter school, it should be allowed to sue.
Frank disagreed, noting that the Minnesota Charter School Law explicitly declares the schools to be public and "part of the state's system of public education."
"Here, TiZA is suing plaintiff over statements that it perceives to be critical of its functions as a public school," the judge wrote. "The body of law establishing that government bodies may not sue for libel applies to TiZA as a public charter school."
Legal precedent holds that a governmental body can't sue for defamation, Frank noted in his 12-page ruling.
The judge wrote that even if the law allowed the charter school to sue for defamation, the claim would still fail because it would have to meet the legal standard of "actual malice." Under that standard, a public figure who claims he was defamed must prove not only that the alleged defamatory statement was false, but that the person uttering or publishing it knew (or should have known) that it was false and made it with "reckless disregard" of whether it was true.
The standard is less stringent for nonpublic figures, which TiZA claimed it was. Frank said that even though the school had not "voluntarily thrust itself into the public controversy," it was still a public institution.
TiZA claimed that the ACLU of Minnesota should have known the statements it was making about the charter school were untrue because it had investigated the school in 2008. Frank said lawyers for the school had failed to show actual malice, though.
"It is evident that plaintiff initiated this lawsuit because it believes TiZA, while a public charter school by law, is in fact operating like a private, religious school," the judge wrote.
Frank's ruling is the latest in a string of problems faced by the academy, which was established in 2003 but has come under increased state scrutiny in the past couple of years. Last month, Seagren upheld an earlier $140,000 fine her department had levied against the school for having eight teachers who lacked valid teaching licenses or permits.
A 2008 investigation by the state Education Department determined the school largely complied with state and federal law but needed to modify its approach to Friday prayers and busing.
Even though eight of every 10 students at TiZA come from families living below the federal poverty line — and seven of 10 are learning English as a second language — the school has done well academically. Earlier this year, TiZA was one of three schools nationwide to win the 2009 Growth Achievement Award from the Northwest Evaluation Association.
The association is a national nonprofit group that evaluates schools with the aim of improving teaching and learning, and it provides professional training and consulting services.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.