Ohio students sue over confiscation of h.s. paper that questioned enforcement of school alcohol policy

The December edition of The Wooster Blade finally saw the light of day by direct order of a U.S. district judge. The student newspaper was distributed at Wooster High School and throughout the community Jan. 15, although some key reporting was left out pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Ohio students earlier in the month.

Wooster City School District officials confiscated the Wooster High School student newspaper Dec. 19 because they claimed an article contained inaccurate and defamatory statements attributed to two students about alleged misconduct during a house party. One of those students, the daughter of a school board member, allegedly told the newspaper that she drank alcohol at the party and was one of six student-athletes punished for violating the athletic department’s code of conduct. She later said she never made the statement to Blade reporters. The school district’s attorney, David Millstone, therefore claimed the story was potentially libelous.

On Jan. 9 both sides agreed during a session with U.S. District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent to publish the edition if the students eliminated all references to their two classmates. The changes, which appeared as white boxes over each reference to the identity or statement attributed to the students, were approved by Blade adviser Kristi Hiner and Millstone. The Blade staff also produced a sidebar to explain the situation to their readers and reaffirm their belief that their reporting was accurate.

The four student journalists, all seniors at Wooster High School, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order with the court to force distribution of the Blade. But Judge Nugent sidestepped the motion, saying that factual evidence needed to be presented before a decision could be made.

Another district judge will hear the students’ request for a preliminary injunction during a court proceeding that will include witness Testimony in the next few weeks, said Ken Myers, who is representing the students pro bono at the request of The Cleveland Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In the lawsuit, Darcie Draudt, Vasanth Ananth, Tim Yaczo and Kendra Oyer claim that the school district violated their First Amendment rights when officials impounded the paper. They are asking the court to instruct the district not to confiscate the paper in the future because school board bylaws that govern the Blade clearly provide the paper independence from prior review and prior restraint.

Millstone said the district had the authority to impound the papers to protect the rights of other students, which is stated in school board bylaws for school-sponsored publications.

Neither side claimed victory following distribution of the revised Blade edition. Approximately 1,400 copies of the newspaper were distributed at school and 3,100 circulated in the community.

Meanwhile, school board member Robert Johns resigned from his position following a closed session on Jan. 10 to discuss the students’ lawsuit. He said his resignation was in protest of vindictive attitudes of some members over how they treated students, faculty and administrators.

“To voters who elected me, I apologize for resigning, but I have found myself serving on a board with members who I believe saw an opportunity to discredit a member of the high school administration and tried to take advantage of it,” he told The Associated Press. Johns declined to name those board members.

SPLC View: The facts of this situation were discussed in our last LegalAlert, but the key thing to watch in this case is how the court weighs the district’s student publication policy. The plain language of the policy states that no school official other than the adviser is supposed to review the paper prior to publication. School officials, however, say the policy gave them the right to confiscate the papers to protect the rights of other students. While the Supreme Court said in its 1988 decision that school policies should be taken into account in determining student First Amendment rights, there have been very few cases where judges have actually been asked to consider their actual effect. Stay tuned.