Student editors sue school district over prior review

WASHINGTON — Two student editors sued the Everett School District Wednesday, saying the district violated their free speech rights when their school’s principal required them to submit the student newspaper for review before distribution.

“After going through all of the necessary steps at the district level, we felt that we had exhausted all our efforts,” said Everett High School senior Claire Lueneburg, a co-editor of the Kodak, who, along with senior co-editor Sara Eccleston, filed the lawsuit. “We felt that a lawsuit was the next step in this to hopefully get some type of resolution.”

In the lawsuit, which was filed in Snohomish County Superior Court but transferred by the school district to a federal court in Seattle, the co-editors argue that the paper has operated as a “student forum” since at least 1989, and that “by history and practice, the students have made all final decision as to editorial content in the newspaper without prior restraint or review by the Everett School District or any of its agents.”

Lueneburg and Eccleston reached a stalemate with Principal Catherine Matthews in October after Matthews said the Kodak could not be printed with an editorial statement calling the paper a student forum. Matthews also demanded to review the papers before they were distributed.

Mitch Cogdill, the student’s lawyer, said Matthews, who took over as principal in the fall, demanded prior review “immediately” after a story ran in the Kodak which said she was the third choice of students on the hiring committee, suggesting the students’ voice had been ignored.

District Spokeswoman Gay Campbell said “that is absolutely, totally untrue.”

“The principal is more objective and bigger than that,” Campbell said. “There is no way that this has anything to do with some kind of vindictive action against the students.”

The argument, Cogdill said, is that the paper has been editorially independent for some 15 years, and the principal cannot arbitrarily take away that independence.

“The argument has its genesis in the fact that the paper has been a student forum since anybody can remember, ” said Cogdill, a lawyer with Cogdill Nichols Rein Wartelle Andrews in Everett, Wash. “In the history of the paper, the school district has never requested prior review at any time.”

Cogdill said if administrators have a “reasonable forecast” that something illegal ? for example something libelous ? was going to be printed in the paper, then they could step in and review it.

“But you don’t have the right to go in and review automatically,” he said.

School officials said they disagree with the contention in the lawsuit that the paper has not been subject to prior administrative review in the past.

“We have statements from previous principals of extensive review of the paper in the past on a continuing basis,” Campbell said. “That goes back quite a long way.”

Not so, says Cogdill, who said he has statements from a previous Kodak adviser saying principals have not reviewed the paper since 1988.

Campbell has said Matthews was merely enforcing a district policy, passed in 1998, when she required prior review of the paper. The students argue that because the policy was never enforced, the newspaper remained a public forum for students, according to an Associate Press article.

As for the editorial statement, Campbell said Matthews had no choice but to demand the statement be removed from the paper’s masthead.

“The statement says no adult will review the paper,” she said. “But the paper is part of a journalism class. These stories need to be read by a teacher and critiqued.”

The editors have said the newspaper’s adviser plays a limited role in editing for syntax and punctuation, but that they have always had the final say on what goes in the paper.

Lueneburg said the ultimate goal is to have the Kodak established as a student forum where editors have complete control of content. She also said she would like to see the lawsuit cause the state legislature to consider creating protections for high school journalists, which some states already have.

by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer

The statement the principal objects to reads:

The Kodak is a student forum for the student body of Everett High School. We are not subject to prior review by administrators, faculty or community members. Editorial decisions are made by the student editors-in-chief and the editorial board. Our right to free speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution and under the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Article 1, Section 5. Student free speech is also protected by Everett High School District Policy 3220.