Wash. jury finds paper's oral sex articles did not invade students' privacy

WASHINGTON — A Pierce County jury found in favor of the PuyallupSchool District on Wednesday, establishing that the school’s 2008 studentnewspaper article about students’ sexual practices and histories was not aviolation of those students’ privacy.

The 10-2 jury ruling confirmed there had been no privacy violation by theEmerald Ridge High School newspaper, The JagWire, in printing thearticle, said Mike Hiestand, a Student Press Law Center attorney.

“It really was decided as a straightforward invasion of privacycase,” Hiestand said.

The jury determined that there was a level of newsworthiness, a legaldefense in invasion of privacy cases, to the story reporting on oral sex in highschools, and that the student journalists were”exceptionallycredible,” Hiestand said.

In 2008, four students filed suit against the school district, claimingthey had not consented to the JagWire printing their names and”private details.” The issue that instigated the lawsuit was printedin February 2008, and included information about named students’ sexualexperiences, including intercourse and oral sex.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidthis verdict maintains sends a positive message that should reassure supportersof student press rights.

“It’s a great relief to be able to say that there is still nodocumented case of a school being successfully sued for a penny over somethingits newspaper has published,” LoMonte said.”The ‘liabilityrun amok’ argument has always been a smokescreen for people whose agendais to do away with independent journalism, and this verdict just furtherreinforces and validates that.”

John Connelly, of Connelly Law Offices in Tacoma, Wash., the attorney forthe student plaintiffs, said that while the ruling disappointed him, there wereother victories in this case.

Superior Court Judge Susan Serko ruled on Monday that the JagWire

is a limited public forum newspaper, but — contrary to the way othercourts have interpreted the First Amendment — also ruled that schooladministrators could censor content for any legitimate educational purpose. Theplaintiffs had tried to claim that since the paper was subject to broadcensorship discretion, and the school district gave so much editorial control tothe students on the newspaper staff, that that made the school districtnegligent, Hiestand said.

Since the students filed the lawsuit, the school has enacted a morestringent policy of prior review, under which the newspaper must consult theadviser and principal on any controversial issue, to”discuss it andreview it before it goes out,”Connelly said.

Connelly said the students are currently researching various aspects ofthe case and exploring the possibilities of any appeals in the case.