Court lets student’s libel, privacy claims move forward; school district appeals decision

INDIANA — Attorneys for a schooldistrict are appealing a state trial court’s refusal to dismiss claims by aformer student over statements printed about her in her school’s studentnewspaper.

Heide Peek, a2002 graduate of Whiteland Community High School in Whiteland, Ind., sued theClark-Pleasant Community School Corporation in 2003, claiming an article in thesenior edition of the student newspaper contained defamatory comments abouther. She also claimed that the statements invaded her privacy and caused her seriousemotional distress. A motion to dismiss filed by the school district wasrejected in October 2005.

The districtfiled the appeal Jan. 5 with the Indiana Court of Appeals, said Rosemary Borek,an attorney for the district.

SmokeSignals, the school’smonthly student newspaper, gave Peek the “worst reputation” award in its May2002 issue. The paper also said her favorite song was “Underneath YourClothes,” and in the “ambition” category, made a reference to her being rapedby a monkey, according to the Oct. 11 trial court decision.

Peek wasparticularly sensitive to the comments because she was allegedly raped in April2002, according to the decision.

In addition tothe school district, the lawsuit also named the superintendent, the high schoolprincipal, vice principals and the student newspaper adviser as defendants. Nostudent journalists were named in the suit.

In his ruling,Judge Kevin M. Barton refused the school district’s request to throw out Peek’slibel claims finding that a jury could conclude that the statements publishedin Smoke Signals“imputed sexual misconduct” to Peek. However, the judge alsoacknowledged that a jury might find the statements were simply”nonsensical” and therefore not libelous.

The schooldistrict’s appeal reiterated the “nonsensical” nature of the statements, andfurther asserted that the language was a “prediction” and a “parody,” andtherefore impossible of being proved true or false, a standard for establishinga statement as defamatory.

“In fact, anyreader would realize that the statement does not discuss an actual event, pastor future,” according to the school district’s appeal.

The case islikely to be closely watched by news media and lawyers in Indiana. In hislengthy decision, which touched on the history and background of libel law, thejudge suggested that it may be appropriate for Indiana courts to recognize a”strict liability” standard in some libel cases involving privateindividuals.

Currently,courts have required that a person suing news media must show that reporters oreditors were — at a minimum — negligent in publishing a libelousstatement. Under a strict liability standard, a person suing would not have toshow any wrongdoing on the part of news media, but rather simply have to provethat the statement was libelous and published, a much lesser standard.

The court alsoallowed Peek’s claims for emotional distress and some of her invasion ofprivacy claims to continue, although it dismissed her claim that the statementsconstituted a private facts invasion of privacy, a subcategory of invasion ofprivacy claims that the judge said was not recognized by Indiana courts.

Finally, thejudge threw out Peek’s claim that the various school officials should be heldpersonally liable, finding no evidence that their acts were “willful andwanton, malicious, or clearly outside the scope of [their] employment.”

The schooldistrict’s appeal seized upon the issue of intentional infliction of emotionaldistress, and claimed that while the conduct of the newspaper’s facultysponsor, Janet Mitchell, may have been deemed reckless or negligent, it was not”outrageous.” Without proof of outrageous behavior, the appeal said, it doesnot matter whether the sponsor’s actions intentionally caused emotional distressto Peek.

“Mitchell’sshortcomings with respect to proofreading is not outrageous behavior,” theappeal stated.

The caserepresents the rare situation of a public high school being sued for materialpublished in a student publication.

“It appearsthat the school never attempted to argue that students, not school officials,were making the content decisions, which could have protected the school fromliability,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter.

Attorneys forthe school district said they are waiting to see if the Court of Appeals ofIndiana will accept the appeal.

Anadministrative assistant for Kevin Betz, Peek’s attorney, said that his officehad no comment at this time.

Case: Peek v. Whiteland Community High School, No. 41D01-0406-CT-00081 (Johnson Super.Ct. No. 1 Oct. 11, 2005)

byMike Hiestand, SPLC legal consultant, and Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer