Winner of ‘worst reputation’ award sues Ind. high school over comments in newspaper

A formerIndiana high school student is suing the Clark-Pleasant Community SchoolCorporation for libel after the senior edition of a student newspaper allegedlypublished disparaging comments about her.

Heide Peek, who graduated fromWhiteland Community High School in 2002, was given the “worst reputation” awardin the May 2002 issue of Smoke Signals, the school’s monthly studentnewspaper. The senior edition of the paper also said her favorite song was”Underneath Your Clothes,” and in the “ambition” category made a reference toher being raped by a monkey and subsequently fired from her “job” as azoologist, the lawsuit says.

The statements in Smoke Signalscaused Peek “severe emotional distress,” according to the lawsuit, stating thatshe had been the victim of a sexual assault.

Peek said she was raped inApril 2002, although prosecutors never filed charges against anyone for thealleged incident.

Peek filed suit in Johnson County Superior Court inSeptember 2003, claiming defamation, negligence, infliction of emotionaldistress and invasion of privacy. In addition to the Clark-Pleasant CommunitySchool Corporation, the lawsuit names the superintendent, high school principal,vice principals and journalism adviser as defendants.

“This is a casethat has everything to do with reckless, malicious behavior on the part ofstudents and administrators at the school corporation and school districtallowing vicious comments to be made about my client, especially at a veryfragile point in her emotional well-being,” said Kevin Betz, Peek’sattorney.

The school and its administrators should have protected Peekfrom the false statements, and they acted negligently by allowing the statementsto be published and distributed to the student body, according to thelawsuit.

But Smoke Signals‘ adviser deleted the offensive entriesfrom the paper, only to have the statements put back in by a student editor, whothen sent the paper to press, according to the Daily Journal, acommercial newspaper in Johnson County. No students were punished in theincident by the school, because by the time it was brought to administrators’attention, those responsible had graduated, according to the DailyJournal. No students are named in Peek’s lawsuit.

“We had some kids,[who] in their earnest [effort] to be funny and clever, were really very hurtfulto this young woman. I don’t think they were trying to be hurtful; I think theywere trying to be funny, but the upshot of the thing is they were very hurtfulso her,” said J.T. Coopman, superintendent of the Clark-Pleasant CommunitySchool Corporation, who declined to comment further on the litigation.

Ahearing date for the lawsuit has not been set, Betz said.

SPLC View: Thiscase should serve as a reminder to all student media – particularly thosecontemplating senior issues at this time of year – that the excuse “we were justtrying to be funny” is not a successful legal defense. As one court has said, “aperson shall not be allowed to murder another’s reputation in jest.” Usingsenior superlatives and prophecies or class awards to suggest, for example, thata person is sexually promiscuous, involved with criminal activity or mentallyunstable is a recipe for trouble. Student media that insist on publishing thiskind of content should make their choices carefully. Describing someone as”Best-dressed” or “Most Likely to Succeed” would probably be legally safe but aprediction that a student will stop sharing a boyfriend with her mother ordetermine the father of her child (actual examples reported to the SPLC) wouldprobably not be. Even where a category may not present legal problems, suchawards can carry a lasting sting. It is difficult to journalistically defend adecision to recognize someone for “Face Most Likely to Turn Others to Stone,””Most Likely to Achieve Premier Level Status in K-Mart’s Frequent ShoppersProgram” or “Most Likely to be Flipping Burgers at 40” (also categories actuallyused). Nothing can take the fun out of a year-end edition more quickly than alibel suit.