Teacher sues for defamation
A Knightstown, Ind., teacher has filed a multicount lawsuit against four former students and the students’ parents, alleging he was defamed, placed before the public in a false light and suffered emotional distress as the result of a horror film parody the students made.
Dan Clevenger, a seventh-grade math teacher at Knightstown Intermediate School, is suing Knightstown High School students Isaac Imel, Harrison Null and Codie Overbay and former KHS student Charlie Ours over The Teddy Bear Master, a film the students made last year on their own time away from school. The lawsuit also names each boys’ parents as defendants.
According to the lawsuit filed March 16 in Henry Superior Court I by David M. Seiter, one of two Indianapolis attorneys representing Clevenger, the students’ film contains “false or defamatory statements” about Clevenger. Seiter claims the students made these statements “with knowledge that [they] were false or with reckless disregard of whether [they] were false or not.”
The Complaint for Damages that Seiter filed on Clevenger’s behalf says the students’ film “contains graphic depictions of violence against and the eventual murder” of Clevenger and his wife, as well as “sexually graphic scenes” that infer Clevenger has sexual relations with students in exchange for extra credit. With respect to the latter allegation, Seiter says the students imputed actions to Clevenger “which if true would constitute a felony” in Indiana, as well as “sexual misconduct.”
The students’ film includes a scene where the “Mr. Clevenger” teacher character offers extra credit to a student in exchange for oral sex. The “student” in this scene is portrayed by a miniature stuffed Santa Claus doll, which is held to the fully clothed groin of the student playing the teacher character.
The lawsuit alleges the students “publicized a matter concerning [Clevenger] which places him before the public in a false light.” Clevenger’s attorney says in the complaint that a reasonable person would find the publicized information to be “highly offensive” and that the students used Clevenger’s name “in such a way that would provoke a reasonably foreseeable emotional disturbance or trauma” in the teacher.
The complaint Seiter filed says the students engaged in “extreme and emotional conduct” by utilizing Clevenger’s personality in the film and that this harmed Clevenger’s “reputation and emotional well-being.” In addition to actual damages for injuries, Clevenger is also seeking punitive damages for what Seiter characterized as the students’ “malicious, oppressive, wanton, willful or reckless conduct.”
In addition to seeking damages from the four students, Clevenger is also seeking to hold the students’ parents liable for their sons’ actions. Under Indiana law, parents can be held responsible for up to $5,000 in damages their child knowingly, intentionally or recklessly causes to another person or their property. When contacted late last week, Seiter told The Banner, the Knightstown newspaper, he had no comment to make about the lawsuit.
Besides Seiter, attorney J. Gregory Garrison, the senior partner at Seiter’s firm, is also representing Clevenger. Garrison served as the special prosecutor in boxer Mike Tyson’s rape trial in Marion County in 1992 and is the host of a conservative radio show in Indianapolis.
Jackie Suess, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said the ACLU has agreed to represent the Imels and Ours, and may end up representing one or more of the other students and their parents also. This will be the second time since last fall that Suess and the ACLU have defended at least some of the student filmmakers.
All four students were expelled from KHS last fall because school officials said the film was threatening and defamatory toward Clevenger. Isaac Imel, represented by the ACLU, and Cody Overbay, represented by a private Indianapolis attorney, both sued the Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation, alleging their rights of free speech had been violated by the expulsions.
In December, a federal judge in Indianapolis ruled in the students’ favor and issued a preliminary injunction that allowed Imel and Overbay to return to school while their cases were pending. Shortly after that, the ACLU added Charlie Ours to the lawsuit, and the school corporation and students ultimately reached a settlement whereby CAB’s insurer paid a total of $69,000 to be divided between the three students and their attorneys.
Suess told The Banner she feels confident about her clients’ chances of successfully defending against Clevenger’s “ridiculous” lawsuit. “I think they all have a very good defense,” she said. “I’ve looked at this issue before and I know that they don’t have a good defamation claim. … This is still a First Amendment and free speech issue.”
In an effort to resolve the case quickly and avoid a costly trial, Suess said the ACLU will likely ask the court to enter summary judgment in the students’ favor. “I don’t know what factual issues there could possibly be,” Suess said. “The video is what it is.”
“This is really sad,” Linda Imel, Isaac’s mother, told The Banner on Tuesday. “Actually, I’m more stunned than anything. It saddens me to think that this is continuing.”
Jill Null, Harrison’s mother, shared Linda Imel’s sentiments. “Like the other parents, I’m just truly saddened and disappointed,” she said. “It sickens me that we’re continuing to embarrass one another, our school system and our community and I’m so sorry that it’s come to this.”