A Los Angeles teacher will once again face her former employers in court after being granted a retrial on her harassment suit, a California court of appeals judge ruled in August.
Janis Adams, a former teacher at Palisades High School, sued the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2002 for failing to prevent harassment directed at her via a student-produced satirical, underground newspaper, the Occasional Blow Job. Adams did not bring any legal claim against the students involved in the newspaper. A retrial date against the district has not been set.
Four years after Adams was called a porn star and her head was imposed on a photo of a nude model in the March 2000 issue of the O.B.J., the case will continue because of a two-sentence addition to California law in 2003 that Superior Court Judge Kenneth Freeman ruled applies retroactively.
According to Freeman, the changes mean that employers such as the school district can, in some cases, be held responsible for harassment by non-employees such as students. However, the judge did not rule specifically that the publication of the newspaper constituted harassment or that harassment claims in such cases outweigh constitutionally protected free speech.
School administrators banned the publication’s distribution in 2000 and suspended 11 students involved in the newspaper, transferring five of its publishers to other area schools. A jury awarded Adams $4.35 million in damages in March 2002.\n
Freeman vacated the verdict three months later, calling the damages excessive. The case was sent back for a new trial in June 2002. Adams appealed to California’s 2nd District Court of Appeals, which issued the August ruling.
The school district could ask the California Supreme Court to review the case, which lawyers say would likely prolong the suit’s resolution.\n
SPLC View: We had hoped this case was over. Unfortunately, the judge’s ruling reopens a potentially confusing can of worms for students and administrators. By law, school officials have traditionally had limited control over – and consequently limited responsibility for – speech that is independently created by students, even if the students distribute their work at school. However, if the court finds the school responsible for the students’ publication in this case, school officials could be put in the untenable position of either unlawfully censoring their students – and being sued by them – or declining to censor – and being sued by their employees who claim they were harmed by students’ speech. The proper solution: students who publish defamatory or otherwise harmful speech should themselves be held responsible, not school officials who had nothing to do with it.