Breakdown in talks takes Wooster Blade closer to legal action

OHIO — Last month, Wooster City School Districtofficials confiscated the high school student newspaper, The WoosterBlade, because they said an article contained libelous content about twostudents’ alleged misconduct during a house party. Now Blade editors saynegotiations have broken down with their principal and superintendent overdistribution of the issue, and they are taking steps toward legalaction.Members of the Blade staff and school officials, alongwith attorneys for both sides, met on Monday afternoon in a closed session in anattempt to reach a resolution over the confiscation. David Millstone, theattorney for the school district, said administrators offered to pay to reprintthe Blade if they eliminated any inaccurate and defamatory statements inthe article. The Wooster High School students also were given the option toreprint the issue without the article or to shelve the issue entirely and beginwork on the next edition.The five Blade staffers present at themeeting, along with their attorney via phone, balked at the options and saidthey wanted to distribute the edition and would consider publishing a letter tothe editor with the administrators concerns over the article. Bladestaffers told a Daily Record reporter that they would not settle unlessassurances were given to them that future confiscations would notoccur.”Compromise is not a dirty word,” said Darcie Draudt, editor inchief, in a Jan. 7 Daily Record story. “Our main concern is that in thefuture our [publication] rights are not violated again.” As is, thematter is at a standstill. The Cleveland Professional Chapter of the Society ofProfessional Journalists has provided the students legal representation throughCleveland-based attorney Ken Myers. Myers said he is confident the studentjournalists have a case because school board bylaws clearly protect theBlade against prior review, prior restraint and censorship beyond thelimitations imposed by the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v.Kulhmeier.”If the newspaper was governed strictly by the types ofrules that governed Hazelwood … [and] even if they had a legitimatebeef with one or two lines of one article, confiscating of the entire issue wastoo extreme to withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Myers said. “Given not onlythe policies that the [school] board has implemented but the fact that it isalso considered an open forum newspaper, I don’t think they have the right toconfiscate it regardless of whether somewhere down the road a court findssomething to be defamatory.”In the article in question, Bladestaff writers Tim Yaczo and Amila Uppal reported on the school board’s decisionto lessen the school-imposed punishments for six Wooster student-athletes, whowere found to have violated the athletic department code of conduct whileattending a house party in November. The Blade reported that the daughterof a school board member was one of the six students to receive theboard-imposed community service as punishment. The student also was quoted assaying that she drank alcohol at the party. A 10th-grade student allegedly toldthe newspaper that he was at the party.On a direct order fromSuperintendent David Estrop, Wooster High School Principal Jim Jacksonconfiscated all 4,500 copies of the Dec. 20 edition of Blade one daybefore it was to be distributed. Millstone says those copies remain impounded ina “secure location.”Millstone said the administration had the authorityto do so because the Blade erred in its reporting. He said the school boardmember’s daughter was not one of the six students disciplined, and she has sincedenied ever making the statement to the Blade that she drank at theparty. “That is a factual error that can damage an individual,”Millstone said. “You are talking about not just a violation of student code butwhat amounts to criminal conduct. Under the law in Ohio that is calleddefamation per se.”According to Millstone, Estrop also told Bladeadviser Kristi Hiner to obtain releases by the parents of the students namedin the story prior to publication because the newspaper was reporting on aconfidential student disciplinary hearing.Hiner, on the advice of herlawyer, would not comment on whether she was given that directive by Estrop.Hiner, who also was present at the Monday meeting, said she allowed her studentsto do most of the talking.Millstone said the district had the authorityto impound the papers to protect the rights of other students, which is statedin school board bylaws for school-sponsored publications. Although thenewspaper is produced in a classroom setting, the staff and Hiner consider thatthe Blade is governed by a separate bylaw because printing costs are paidthrough advertising revenue. According to the bylaws that govern studentpublications, the school board “recognizes that an unfettered student press isessential” and that “student journalists shall be afforded protection againstprior review and/or censorship” unless the material is obscene, defamatory orcauses a material disruption. Blade Op/Ed Editor Vasanth Ananthsaid the newspaper did not libel anyone. “[Administrators] havenot found any evidentiary support that [the student’s statements were] libelous.They just think it is libelous,” Ananth said. And he questioned what authorityallowed school officials to review and exercise restraint of the papers beforethey were distributed. Myers is expected to file a motion for atemporary restraining order soon to allow the Blade edition to bedistributed.”I think [administrators] have waived their Hazelwoodrights or at least assigned them to the adviser who determined thesestatements were not defamatory,” said Myers. “The only reason the school is nowclaiming the story is defamatory is because the girl who was quoted is now notonly recanting her statement but claiming she never made it. The reporter claimsshe did.”Meanwhile, the climate around the high school remains insupport of the students’ right to question the confiscation, Hinersaid.”I wholly support my students standing up if they feel their[free-speech] rights have been violated,” she said.Social studiesteacher Jolene Dyer echoed that sentiment in a Daily Record article.”Even if it goes no further, a point has been made,” she said.Millstonesaid the current showdown does not restrict the Blade from publishingfuture issues. He said administrators are not opposed to articles that criticizethem, but the concern remains with accurate reporting.