School board pays $35,000 to settle Wooster Blade censorship lawsuit

OHIO — In settling a significant case for student press rights, the Wooster Board of Education agreed to pay $35,000 to dismiss a lawsuit filed by four student journalists after administrators confiscated the December 2002 issue of the Wooster High School newspaper.

Under the agreement reached in November, the Wooster Board of Education will pay $5,000 to charities designated by the four students and $30,000 in legal fees. Funding for the payments will come from the board’s insurance policy.

Ken Myers, a Cleveland attorney who represented the students, said the school district will donate $2,500 to the Student Press Law Center and $2,500 to the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Both parties agreed not to discuss the details of the settlement.

In February, a U.S. district court judge denied the student journalists’ request to prohibit the school district from conducting further prior review of the Wooster Blade. However, the judge did recognize that the student newspaper had greater protection than provided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling because the school had opened the publication as a public forum for student expression.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the settlement is important for all student journalists.

“The significance of this case is that a federal court recognized Hazelwood doesn’t mean any school-sponsored publication is a nonpublic forum,” Goodman said.

Under the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a school is permitted editorial control over the content of a school-sponsored student newspaper.

This is the first case since Hazlewood to define this issue so clearly, Goodman said.

He said the February ruling could have an impact on all student journalists because it will help them take other cases of censorship to court and win.

“The court ruling is saying that if a school by policy or practice has its publications as a public forum then the students have much stronger First Amendment protections,” Goodman said.

The legal battle began when Superintendent David Estrop impounded the entire press run of a December issue of the Wooster Blade. He claimed an article about students receiving punishment for being caught drinking alcohol contained “potentially defamatory” information.

In the article, the daughter of a school board member was quoted as saying that she drank alcohol at an off-campus party and was one of six student-athletes who were disciplined for violating the high school athletic department’s code of conduct. District officials say the girl never admitted to any wrongdoing and was never punished.

The students maintained the girl told a Wooster Blade reporter that she had been drinking at the party; however, the newspaper subsequently acknowledged it inaccurately reported that she had been punished.

According to the settlement, Superintendent Estrop, not the board, prohibited the distribution of the Wooster Blade. Estrop and the board agreed that prior restraint should only be used as a last resort.

In addition, the editors of the Wooster Blade acknowledged that the girl in the article was not convicted or punished by the district for drinking.

Both parties agreed that the superintendent would attempt to meet with the editor and adviser before deciding not to distribute the Wooster Blade in the future.

The settlement did not state whether the Wooster Board of Education would revise its student publications policies.

Goodman said schools are usually unwilling to revise their policies.

“The settlement is a pretty good indication that the policy was a sound one and this censorship was a mistake,” Goodman said.

CASE: Draudt v. Wooster City School Dist. Bd. of Ed., 246 F.Supp.2d 820 (N.D. Ohio 2003)