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

Attorneys for a school district areappealing a state trial court’s refusal to dismiss claims by a former highschool student over statements printed about her in the school’s studentnewspaper.

Heide Peek, a 2002 graduate of Whiteland Community HighSchool in Whiteland, Ind., sued the Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporationin 2003, claiming an article in the senior edition of the student newspapercontained defamatory comments about her. She also claimed that the statementsinvaded her privacy and caused her serious emotional distress. A motion todismiss filed by the school district was rejected in October2005.

The district filed the appeal Jan. 5 with the Indiana Court ofAppeals, said Rosemary Borek, an attorney for the district.

SmokeSignals, the school’s monthly student newspaper, gave Peek the “worstreputation” award in its May 2002 issue. The paper also said her favorite songwas “Underneath Your Clothes,” and in the “ambition” category, made a referenceto her being raped by a monkey, according to the Oct. 11 trial court decision.

Peek was particularly sensitive to the comments because she wasallegedly raped in April 2002, according to the decision.

In additionto the school district, the lawsuit also named the superintendent, the highschool principal, vice principals and the student newspaper adviser asdefendants. No student journalists were named in the suit.

In hisruling, Judge Kevin M. Barton refused the school district’s request to throw outPeek’s libel claims finding that a jury could conclude that the statementspublished in Smoke Signals “imputed sexual misconduct” to Peek. However, thejudge also acknowledged that a jury might find the statements were simply”nonsensical” and therefore not libelous.

The court also allowedPeek’s claims for emotional distress and some of her invasion of privacy claimsto continue.

Attorneys for the school district said they are waitingto see if the Court of Appeals of Indiana will accept the appeal.

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

SPLC View: This case — which isfar from over — represents a rare situation of a public high school beingsued for material published in a school’s student media. To date, there hasnever been a published court decision where a school district has been requiredto pay money damages for material published in a high school studentpublication.

It appears that the school never attempted to argue thatstudents (as opposed to school officials or the adviser) made the contentdecisions, an argument that could have protected the school and its officialsfrom liability.

In addition to the obvious interest of studentmedia, the case is also likely to be closely watched by non-student newsorganizations and their lawyers in Indiana and elsewhere. In his lengthydecision, which touched on the history and background of libel law, the judgesuggested that it may be appropriate for Indiana courts to recognize a “strictliability” standard in some libel cases involving privateindividuals.

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

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