Judge rules against district's affirmative defenses in high school censorship, adviser case

CALIFORNIA — A California school district will likelyhave a harder time defending itself from a lawsuit filed by several high schooljournalists and their adviser after a district judge denied most of itsaffirmative defenses this month.

Five journalism students and their adviser from Fallbrook High School inFallbrook, Calif., filed a lawsuit against the district after Principal Rod Kingcensored two articles in the Tomahawk, the school’s studentnewspaper, during in the 2007-08 school year.

On June 4, U.S. District Judge James Lorenz of the Southern District Courtof California struck down most of the defendants’ 20 affirmative defensesas legally insufficient.

The affirmative defenses filed by King and the district includes qualifiedimmunity, immunity for discretionary acts, and failure to exhaust administrativeremedies.

Lorenz sided mostly with the plaintiffs, writing that the defendants couldnot use state laws in order to assert immunity from a federal constitutionalclaim. The defendants were able to amend several of their affirmativedefenses.

David Blair-Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union ofSan Diego and Imperial Counties, who is representing the students and adviser,called the ruling “very thorough and thoughtful.”

“It’s a very positive step for the case,” Blair-Loysaid.

He noted the defendants voluntarily withdrew some of their affirmativedefenses after moving the case from state court, where it was filed, to federalcourt.

Though Lorenz ruled most of the defenses were not legally adequate, he saidsome of Adviser David Evans’ employment-related claims could have validaffirmative defenses.

The lawsuit stems from two articles King demanded be removed from theTomahawk. The stories concerned whether the district’s formersuperintendent refused to use the school as an emergency shelter during theOctober 2007 wildfires and an editorial criticizing a school assembly thatendorsed abstinence-only sex education.

King had the articles removed from the publication, canceled the journalismclass and removed Evans from his adviser position.

Evans and five students — including the two authors and students whohad planned to take the course before it was canceled — sued,claiming the district violated their First Amendment rights and broke state andfederal laws.

Fallbrook Union High School District Superintendent Dale Mitchell saiddistrict officials are “engaged in some conversation to try and bringclosure to this.”

Mitchell noted the journalism program — which has since become anafter-school activity — is not thriving, adding he “would have likedto have seen more issues published” this year.

“We’re working to try and bring an amicable resolution to thisfor all parties,” Mitchell said.

But Evans told the Student Press Law Center in November 2008 they filedsuit after negotiation with the district failed.

For More Information:

  • ACLU, SPLC file lawsuit against Calif. high school over canceled student newspaper News Flash, 11/21/2008
  • Adviser removed at Calif. high school after challenging principal’s censorship News Flash, 7/09/2008