High school editors reach settlement in suit over paper's masthead

WASHINGTON — Both sides claimed victory in a settlement announced Thursday that ended a nearly two-year-old lawsuit over whether Everett High School’s principal could demand to review issues of the student newspaper before they went to press.

Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston, former co-editors in chief of the Kodak, brought suit in December 2005 after the school’s new principal prevented the paper from printing a revised masthead, which stated in part that the paper was “not subject to prior review by administrators, faculty or community members.”

Administrators argued that district policies gave them the right to review the paper; students said that power had not been exercised by previous principals, making the paper a limited open forum in practice.

The settlement removes that statement from the masthead. The agreed-upon language retains provisions that student editors make content decisions — though “subject to Everett School District Policy 3221 and 3221P” — and that students’ free-speech rights are protected under the federal and state constitutions.

Michael Patterson, an attorney representing the school system, called the settlement “a total and absolute vindication for the Everett School District” in a press release, noting that the settlement explicitly recognizes the district’s right to exercise prior review of the paper.

Shannon Tillar, one of the lawyers representing the students, disputed that interpretation. She argued that, although administrators may review the Kodak, the settlement achieved the students’ goal of ensuring that administrators may only stop the paper from publishing material that would be considered unprotected speech, such as libel, obscenity or advocacy of illegal drugs.

“We think the students have won here,” Tillar said.

Previously, Tillar had said she was concerned that school officials — including Everett High School Principal Catherine Matthews, who has a history of hostilities with the student newspaper — viewed prior review as a roundabout way of enacting prior restraint.

The dispute began in April 2005, when a Kodak article revealed that Matthews was a student committee’s third choice to be the school’s principal. The paper sought to publish its revised masthead in fall 2005, after Matthews had been installed as principal.

The settlement follows a preliminary ruling issued in July by U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez that denied the school’s request to dismiss the case. In that decision, Martinez wrote that the students could not sue the principal for threatening prior review. However, 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.

The district policies referred to in the new masthead differ in how they describe material that administrators can withhold. Policy 3221 says that material in student publications “should reflect all areas of student interest, including topics about which there may be controversy or dissent.” Among other things, it bars material that is libelous or obscene, that would advocate illegal activity or that would cause a substantial disruption.

But policy 3221P uses broader language, prohibiting material that “runs counter to the instructional program” or “is inappropriate for the maturity level of the students,” among other restrictions.

Tillar argued that the policies as a whole ensure that only unprotected speech can be censored, and that the rules prevent administrators from classifying material they simply disagree with as “counter to the instructional program.”

“We think this still protects the Kodak and the students now working on the Kodak,” Tillar said.

Final language for the settlement still is being drafted. A completed settlement must be filed in court within 30 to 60 days, Tillar said.

For More Information:

  • School district’s official statement
  • District court says high school editors’ lawsuit will go to trial News Flash, 7/24/2007
  • Student editors sue school district over prior review News Flash, 12/16/2005
  • Administrators print paper without student editors’ knowledge News Flash, 11/30/2005
  • Statement against prior review prompts principal to halt publication News Flash, 10/21/2005