CALIFORNIA — In a decision that recognizes student free-expressionrights, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge threw out a $4.35 millionsexual harassment verdict June 7 against the Los Angeles UnifiedSchool District that resulted from comments published in an undergroundnewspaper distributed on campus.
Judge Kenneth Freeman granted the school district’s motionfor a new trial, citing excessive damages, prejudicial jury instructionsand improper evidence in the case filed by a former PalisadesCharter High School teacher.
Janis Adams alleged that students had sexually harassed herin the 10th issue of the Occasional Blow Job. After thepaper called Adams a porn star and superimposed her head on aphoto of a nude model, the administration banned the publication’sdistribution and suspended and transferred five of its publishers.Six other students were also suspended for the satirical publication,and a 300-student protest ensued, criticizing the administrationfor coming down on the students with "an iron fist."
While Adams never pursued a libel claim against the students,she sued the district for failing to take immediate correctiveaction to address the students’ conduct.
A jury agreed with Adams that not enough was doneto protect her from the harassment and awarded her $1.1 millionon compensatory damages and $3.25 in damages for emotional distressin March.
In June 7 post-trial motions, Freeman did not vacate the jury’sverdict but did grant the district’s motion for a new trial. He cited errors in the law, recognizing "substantial differencesbetween school districts and other employers."
"[P]ublic schools cannot, by reason of various and significantconstitutional and due process limitations, exercise the leveland nature of control over student conduct that private employerscan exercise over adult employees," the judge wrote.
In this context, he ruled that schools must retain their statusas a marketplace of ideas. Because of the unique conditions thatdifferentiate schools from private employers, the judge concludedthat school districts cannot be held to the same standards ofliability under California’s anti-harassment statute that privateemployers are held to.
The district’s lawyers were pleased with the decision.
"Yes, it was sudden in the sense that no one knew thiswas coming before it came, but we were certainly working veryhard on it from the time the original verdict came in," saidScott Barer, an attorney for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The district hired new attorneys to help solidify the argumentsfor post-trial motions.
"Schools are places of learning, not litigation,"Hal Kwalwasser, general counsel for district, said in a pressrelease.
The case has the potential to set a legal precedent for conflictsbetween student free expression and teacher harassment issues.No trial date has been set.
Read our previous coverage.
- Jury: School liable for paper Report, Spring 2002
- 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