CALIFORNIA — Allowing student free speech may have comeat a high price for the Los Angeles Unified School District, aftera superior court jury last week handed down a decision that –if left unchallenged — could set a dangerous precedent for casesinvolving student journalists.
A jury unanimously awarded Palisades High School teacher JanisAdams $4.35 million in damages when she took the school districtto court over an underground newspaper that she claims the schooldid little to stop after it defamed her. Over the course of threemonths and 10 issues of the paper in 2000, student publishersof the Occasional Blow Job attacked Adams, making her thebutt of jokes and calling her a porn star, as well as superimposingher head on a picture of a nude model.
The students said the O.B.J., which offended teachersand administrators because of its crude subject matter and profanity,began as a prank and was meant to be pure satire.
Adams took the insults to heart and sued the school districtdespite its banning of the O.B.J. and punishment of thestudents who published and distributed it.
Adams’s complaints about the O.B.J. led the administrationto ban its distribution in Palisades and to suspend and transferfive of its publishers to other schools in March 2000. Six otherstudents were also suspended.
In June 2000 a federal judge ruled that one of the students,Jeremy Meyer, could not be suspended or transferred for his rolein the O.B.J., which amounted to an e-mail he sent to theeditors without expecting it to be published. Meyer’s letter,which questioned student suspensions, appeared in the same editionas an article that criticized Adams, but did not mention the namesof any teacher or administrator at the school.
Meyer went to the high school administration and asked to dropone of Adams’ classes after she threatened in class to bringlegal action against the author of the article. Meyer inferredthat Adams believed that he was the author.
About 300 of Palisades’ 2,500 students staged a rally protestingthe suspensions and parents criticized the administration forcoming down on the student journalists with "an iron fist."
Despite the punishments, Adams sued the school district forharassment. Her husband Mark Adams said the district sided with"spoiled, rich kids who raped their teacher with their words."
After 3 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury on Mar. 8 awardedAdams $3.25 million for emotional distress and $1.1 million forlost earnings while on leave-of-absence after the incidents in2000.
"We feel we did everything possible to protect Mrs. Adams,and we took action against the students," said Hal Kwalwasser,legal counsel for the school district.
"Mrs. Adams now takes the attitude we did nothing,"he said, "when, in fact, we did several things that wereopposed by countervailing forces, including students and the AmericanCivil Liberties Union."
Donna Myrow, publisher of LA Youth, said she is concernedthat the school district will ban the distribution of all independentpublications in the wake of the decision. Myrow expressed herconcerns in a letter to Kwalwasser on Thursday. LA Youth isan independent publication circulated throughout many Los Angelesschools.
Kwalwasser said the district would decide within a month ifit will appeal the superior court’s decision.
"It is very questionable whether an appellate court willuphold this judgement," said Mark Goodman, executive directorof the Student Press Law Center. "The First Amendment limitsschool officials’ ability to censor underground newspapers andthe appeals court will likely recognize that."
The decision in the appeal would likely set a legal precedentin that it would establish what course of action should be takenwhen student free speech and teacher non-harassment interestsseem to be in conflict, Kwalwasser said.
"In California it’s a fairly absolute standard about keepingthe workplace hostility-free," he said. "Having saidthat, students have First Amendment rights, so where’s the balance?"
Read our previous coverage.
- Judge prohibits school district from punishing student for contributing to underground paper Report, Fall 2000
- High school students face punishment for speech Report, Spring 2000