Federal court denies Wooster Blade injunction; lawsuit will continue

OHIO — A bid by four student journalists at WoosterHigh School to keep the school district from conducting further prior review ofthe Wooster Blade failed. On Feb. 14 a federal judge ruled the studentsdid not show substantial likelihood of proving that district officials were inerror or would confiscate the newspaper again.In his ruling, the judge,however, recognized the Blade had greater First Amendment protection thanwas recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1988 Hazelwood v.Kuhlmeier case. In labeling the newspaper a limited public forum, the judgeruled the school district must meet a high standard before it is permitted tocensor material.The legal battle began after Principal James Jackson, bydirect order of Superintendent David Estrop, impounded the entire press run of aDecember issue of the biweekly student publication because, they claimed,an article chronicling school board punishments of students caught drinkingalcohol included “potentially defamatory” material. In the article, thedaughter of a school board member was described as saying she drank alcohol atan off-campus party and was one of six student-athletes who were disciplined forviolating the high school athletic department’s code of conduct. Districtofficials say the girl never admitted to any wrongdoing and was never punished.The student journalists attest the girl told a Blade reporter that shehad been drinking at the party; however, they subsequently acknowledged theyinaccurately reported she had been punished.In his denial of thestudents’ motion for preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge James S.Gwin did not determine whether the students’ First Amendment rights wereviolated or if the article was, in fact, defamatory. Those questions were leftto be answered during court proceedings regarding the students’ lawsuit,expected to be heard and decided sometime later this year.Instead thecourt found that the students had not met the high burden of proving that theschool administrators erred in judgment when confiscating the paper required to receive a preliminary injunction.”Thecourt concludes the [school district] had at least a reasonable belief that thearticle was potentially defamatory,” Gwin wrote in his 22-page opinion.”Accordingly, under its own policy and relevant case law, the district couldprohibit the publication of the article because it potentially infringed theright of another student.”The court sided with administrators who argueddistrict policy provides them the right to prohibit distribution of theBlade in order to protect other students’ rights if they reasonablybelieve material is defamatory. The students claimed the policy gives finalapproval to their adviser, who approved the underage drinking story. But thecourt ruled that because adviser Kristi Hiner testified that she was unaware ofthe girl’s denial to school officials, she could not know the article waspotentially defamatory. “Since the [school] board reasonably believedthat the article was defamatory, it therefore reasonably believed that thestudents and the adviser were not following the policy practice of prohibitingthe publication of defamatory material,” Gwin said.Furthermore, thecourt ruled the students did not prove irreparable harm, a requirement forreceiving a preliminary injunction. He called the confiscation an “isolatedincident” and said there was no “clear and convincing evidence” that districtofficials were likely to do it again. The Blade has published at leasttwo editions since the confiscation without problem, including a redistributionof the December edition. After an earlier court order, the potentiallydefamatory statements in the underage drinking article wereexcluded in the redistribution.Still, the court provided a silver lining to the students whenthe judge ruled the Blade a limited public forum, not a nonpublic forumas was the student newspaper in the Hazelwood case. In a limitedor designated public forum, the government may impose content-based restrictionson speech only if they are necessary to serve compelling state interest and arenarrowly tailored to that end, Gwin wrote. Conversely, in a nonpublic forum,restrictions on speech need only be “reasonable and not an effort to suppressexpression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view,” hewrote.The court recognized the Blade as a limited public forumbecause of the freedoms the school district provided, by practice and in policy,to the student journalists regarding their editorial decisions. Although theBlade is produced in a class for credit, the court said the district didnot make it solely part of the school’s curriculum. Students were given broadeditorial license to pick and choose what topics to cover, most of the paper’scirculation was distributed off-campus and non-students occasionally submittedcontent.”Here, a student newspaper, by its very nature, exists forexpressive activity,” Gwin said. “Further, the board encourages the use of thenewspaper as a forum to preserve ‘the constitutional provision of free speech’and ‘provide a vehicle for the expression of student thought’ subject only toprohibitions on obscene, defamatory or disruptive expression,” he said, quotingfrom school policies. Providing the Blade such distinction couldbenefit the student journalists as they proceed in their lawsuit.KenMyers, who is representing the students at the request of TheCleveland Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said,although he is disappointed with the judge’s ruling, he is encouraged by thefinding of limited public forum. “School newspapers since Hazelwoodhave probably assumed that they can’t fight city hall, that school districtshave almost unfettered license to censor student newspapers,” he said.He said he plans to prove that not only was the material not defamatory,but that school officials did not reasonably believe it was defamatory. Myerssays the case deals with power politics in a community where the daughter of theschool board member wanted to be protected from disclosing she drankalcohol.

Read the court decision in Draudt v. Wooster City School Board District Board of Education.

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