Calif. teacher wins harassment suit stemming from underground student paper

Allowing student free speech may have come at a high price for the Los Angeles Unified School District, after a superior court jury this month handed down a decision that — if left unchallenged — could set a dangerous precedent for cases involving student journalists.

A jury unanimously awarded Palisades High School teacher Janis Adams $4.35 million in damages when she took the school district to court over an underground newspaper that she claims the school did little to stop after it defamed her. Over the course of three months and 10 issues of the paper in 2000, student publishers of the Occasional Blow Job attacked Adams, making her the butt of jokes as well as superimposing her head on a picture of a nude model.

The students said the O.B.J., which offended teachers and 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 district despite its banning of the O.B.J. and punishment of the students who published and distributed it.

Adams’s complaints about the O.B.J. led the administration to ban its distribution in Palisades and to suspend and transfer five of its publishers to other schools in March 2000. Six other students 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 role in the O.B.J., which amounted to an e-mail he sent to the editors without expecting it to be published. Meyer’s letter, which questioned student suspensions, appeared in the same edition as an article that criticized Adams, but did not mention the names of any teacher or administrator at the school.

Despite the punishments, Adams sued the school district for harassment. After 3 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury on March 8 awarded Adams $3.25 million for emotional distress and $1.1 million for lost earnings while on leave-of-absence after the incidents in 2000.

“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 were opposed by countervailing forces, including students and the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Donna Myrow, publisher of LA Youth, said she is concerned that the school district will ban the distribution of all independent publications in the wake of the decision. Myrow expressed her concerns in a letter to Kwalwasser. LA Youth is an independent publication circulated throughout many Los Angeles schools.

Kwalwasser indicated in an interview on Court TV that the district will appeal the superior court’s decision.

SPLC View: It is difficult not to sympathize with a teacher subjected to the cruel treatment at issue in this case. But if this decision is allowed to stand, it will almost certainly have a devastating impact on other independent publications students attempt to distribute at school, even those of the highest journalistic quality. This case would require school officials to analyze every individual student publication that criticized a teacher and determine if that criticism constitutes “harassment.” (Legal experts cannot agree on what harassment is; one can hardly expect a school building administrator will be able to make an informed determination.) We can bet that officials confronted with a choice between supporting student free expression and the risk of multimillion dollar lawsuits will seldom stand up for student rights.

Fortunately, it looks to us as if the appellate court will have no choice but to alter this judgment. Court decisions interpreting the First Amendment and California law limit school officials’ ability to censor underground newspapers. The appeals court — unlike the trial jury — will more likely recognize that a school cannot be held responsible for expression it could not legally have prevented. The teacher’s remedy here, to the extent she could prove an actual legal injury and not just hurt feelings, was against the students and their parents, not against the school. It appears she chose to file against the presumably deeper pockets of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Citation: Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District (Calif. Super. Ct. Los Angeles Cty March 8, 2002)