WASHINGTON — Several high school students who were quotedabout their oral sex experiences are claiming the student newspaper did not havetheir permission to print the information.
Four students and their parents have filed claims against the PuyallupSchool District, three reporters from Emerald Ridge High School’s studentnewspaper, the JagWire, and two faculty members for invasion of privacy,negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among othertorts.
Washington state law requires petitioners seeking legal action against anylocal government entity to file a claim expressing the merits of their potentiallawsuit before they actually file a lawsuit in court. Each of the studentplaintiffs is seeking up to $1.5 million in damages. They claim they expresslyrequested anonymity and were told their names would not be printed.
Michael Patterson, who is representing the school district, maintainsotherwise.
“Our editors and staff clearly indicated that everyone gave thempermission, and they specifically ran the quotes by them again to makesure,” he said. “I think this is going to be a defensibleclaim.”
The contentious newspaper issue hit campus in February with four pagesdedicated to the topic of oral sex. Stories ranged from a description of thehormones triggered in oral stimulation to a pair of opposing columns on whetherit is immoral to engage in the behavior.
The most controversial elements of the package were five testimonials fromstudents — all quoted by name.
“I was 15. I was horny. It wasn’t really a relationship at thatpoint,” one 18-year-old female senior said. “I’d known the guyfor a week.”
Another female senior, who was 17 at the time of publication, told theJagWire she thought she “waited the perfect amount of time because Iwas ready. It’s not something I want to regret. I don’t reallyregret anything like mistakes and I don’t think it was amistake.”
One male student senior — who was quoted saying he did not think oralsex was an appropriate way to strengthen a relationship — did not file aclaim. Neither did two students whose contrasting opinions were quoted within anarticle about the district’s sexual education curriculum.
The students who filed claims argue that the school district failed toadequately instruct and supervise the journalism class, and employees failed toteach proper journalistic techniques regarding publication and identification.The students did not give permission for their names to be used in the newspaperand did not give permission for the disclosure of details about their sex lives,the claim says.
But JagWire staffers told the Student Press Law Center they tookextra care in collecting the quotations, returning to double-check wording andverify that it was OK to publish names. The four-member editorial board of thenewspaper’s most senior reporters oversaw the oral sex package.
Lauren Smith, a member of the editorial board, said they respected astudent’s wish to retract her comments and altered one of the malesenior’s quotes a couple of days before the issue went to print at hisrequest.
Reporters had recorded the interviews but accidentally reused the same tapefor a sports article, said Ashley Vincent, another editorial board member.
The claims say the tape recordings of the interviews were”destroyed.”
Vincent said staffers made sure they were especially careful because theyhad debated whether to write about oral sex for eight months before goingforward. The editorial board wanted the staff to be mature and knowledgeableenough to handle the sensitive topic, she said.
And in February Vincent said they found the material to be newsworthy andnecessary.
A survey reporters conducted found that 37 percent of the student body hadengaged in oral sex — but the school district had no curriculum thatspecifically addressed the topic.
“It was such an important thing that we wanted parents and teachersand the community to realize that, ‘Hey, this is going on, and your kidsare out there doing this, and you need to know about it,’ ” Vincentsaid. “I guess the main concern really was that the message we were tryingto send out would not be heard correctly or that people wouldn’t take itseriously.”
JagWire staffers had considered running the testimonials anonymouslybut decided against it. The claims against the school district say that the usesof the students’ names were highly offensive, with the pull quotespublished alongside the articles amounting to “little more than bathroomgraffiti.”
“At the end of the day, the quotes used were completely unnecessaryfor the articles with which they were published and simply masqueraded asjournalism,” the claims say.
Gerry LeConte, a member of the editorial board, steadfastly disagreed.
“People think the design and the quotes were just to besensationalistic and that’s not what they were for. They were so parentscouldn’t say, ‘That’s not my kid,’ ” LeConte said.
“If you put a pull quote that says one in three kids is having oral sex,many, many, many parents will say ‘Well, that’s the bad one third ofthe students. That’s not my kids.’ And that’s just not theissue.”
Though professional media cases involving consent by minors have made theirway through the legal system, courts have never addressed the issue in thestudent media realm, said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student PressLaw Center.
“It’s an issue that has always surprised me that there justreally is not a lot of case law,” Hiestand said. “It’s a bigissue, because obviously, with students talking to students, we think they oughtto have the right to share their stories and also have others not share theirstories if they don’t give consent.”
Courts generally follow the standard that a person’s consent iseffective as long as the person has the legal capacity to give it, regardless ofage. A minor’s consent is traditionally recognized if he or she is capableof understanding the consequences, even if parental consent is not obtained orexpressly refused.
Smith said the editorial board implemented a policy immediately followingthe oral sex issue that requires students’ written consent if they arequoted on a sensitive subject.
Vincent said the oral sex issue taught her to make sure her sourcesunderstood the gravity of what they may experience — and to get it inwriting.
“I know it was hard for those students,” she said, “but I also knowthat they’re the same age as me, and they chose to talk to areporter.”