District court says high school editors' lawsuit will go to trial

WASHINGTON — A U.S. District Court judge in Seattle has granted a high school partial summary judgment to end one student press rights complaint lodged against it, but the school will still have to go to trial to settle other First Amendment-related issues.

The case involves two former students of Everett High School who launched a suit against the school in 2005 alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated when the principal attempted to delete a masthead in the student newspaper, the Kodak, and decided to review all future issues of the newspaper before they were published. Although the judge on July 13 agreed with the school that the principal could enact prior review, he also said the school’s assertion that the newspaper is not a public forum and whether or not the principal’s decision was an act of retaliation must be decided in court.

In his decision to grant summary judgment, Judge Ricardo Martinez wrote that students cannot sue a principal for threatening prior review, which he defined as a policy that “merely regulates the time of when the paper will be published and the manner in which the publication will occur.”

Prior restraint, which is a related but more extreme restriction that involves forbidding the publication of student media, is illegal in Washington, the judge wrote, but prior review is permissible. This decision marks the first time that a court has said school officials cannot enact prior restraint under Washington law.

Shannon Tillar, the students’ lawyer, said she is concerned that school officials — including Principal Catherine Matthews, who has a history of hostilities with the student newspaper — see prior review as a roundabout way of enacting prior restraint.

“The thrust of their argument is that they should control the masthead,” Tillar said. “Masthead control is a restraint.”

The alleged hostilities between the Kodak and Matthews began in April 2005 when the newspaper published an article revealing that Matthews was a student committee’s third choice candidate to be the school’s principal. In the fall 2005, after Matthews had been installed as principal, the newspaper wanted to publish an issue with a masthead that stated the Kodak was a student forum and is not subject to prior review.

Matthews objected to this masthead because it “violated School Board policy,” according to court documents. The staff said she also demanded to review the newspaper prior to publication. When the staff refused, Matthews published the issue without the masthead and without the students’ knowledge.

Claire Lueneberg and Sara Eccleston, former co-editors in chief of the Kodak, sued the school in December 2005.

Tillar said one of the more difficult questions that will play out in court is whether a school official can create and take away a student publication’s open forum status at will. Tillar said Everett High School is preparing to argue that an official has that authority.

“If that’s the case, then what does forum status even mean?” she said.

Following the court’s decision, Everett School District Superintendent Carol Whitehead released a statement stating that the school sees the decision as a victory because it upheld the principal’s right to establish prior review.

But Lueneberg, who is entering her sophomore year at Whitman College, said she is cautiously optimistic about a positive outcome for her and Eccleston.

“I think that it’s a positive sign that the motion for summary judgment was not completely accepted by the judge, and that we’re still going to trial,” she said.

A court date has been scheduled for Sept. 4.