Calif. law protects people who report school threats

CALIFORNIA ‘ A new California statute provides immunity to journalists from potential libel suits when reporting acts and threats of school violence.

Under the law, any citizen is protected from liability for defamation if they communicate information to a school official regarding the potential for physical harm to a person on school grounds. The report must be made without knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for its accuracy.

Even though the law, 2001 Cal. Legis. Serv. Ch. 570 (West), does not specifically mention journalists, it is intended to protect ‘a communication by any person to a school principal’ regarding ‘a threat to commit violence on the school ground involving the use of a firearm or other deadly or dangerous weapon.’

The legislation, sponsored by Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel, R-Poway, contends that communicating possible threats is a matter of ‘public concern’ and no one should withhold information about a threat because they are scared of the consequences.

Gov. Gray Davis signed AB 1717 in October in an attempt to thwart libel suits similar to one currently being disputed in Lancaster.

Stephen and Kimberly Tapia were sued for defamation because their daughter, Kristin Tapia, told school officials that one of her classmates at Quartz Hill High School said he wanted to ‘kill someone.’

A state judge dismissed the case, but the Tapias are now facing $40,000 or more in legal bills. They asked Antelope Valley High School to pay the bills, but were denied. Now the sum could increase, since the judge’s dismissal is being appealed.

‘The school district considers Kristina’s civil litigation and her legal bills to be neither their legal nor moral responsibility,’ said Scott Schutz, attorney for the Tapias. ‘They essentially say, thanks for helping us out, but, too bad.’