Fighting, writing and changing minds

When four students sued the Puyallup School District in 2008 claiming the JagWire student newspaper violated their privacy, no one really expected anything good to come out of the lawsuit for student journalists.

Certainly, no one expected the Puyallup school board to propose legislation that would give Washington state high school students greater control over student media.

Nor did anyone expect that one of a similar bill’s top critics would change his mind about high school journalists.

But both have happened, and Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center who is based in Washington state, said the students themselves had a lot to do with getting positive outcomes from a potentially negative situation.

”There were a number of people involved in this case whose minds were changed by the individual students involved,” he said. ”What I’ve always felt, when people meet student journalists, and when they see the sort of work that good student journalism produces, they will be converts.”

Four former Emerald Ridge High School students claimed in the lawsuit that a 2008 article in the JagWire newspaper about students’ sexual histories violated their privacy. They argued that they did not give permission for the newspaper to print their names and details about their experiences with oral sex.

A jury found in April that the JagWire had not violated the students’ privacy and had their permission to print the information. The four students have filed a notice of appeal.

The lawsuit threatened to add a blemish to the fact that a school district has never been held liable for the content of its student media, Hiestand said.

”Despite the millions of pages that have been produced without liability, [school districts would] now focus on these three pages that had created some liability, and that’s all they’d ever see,” Hiestand said.

The plaintiffs also argued that the district was negligent for not properly supervising and educating the students, because they had given the student editors too much freedom.

Hiestand said that if they were successful in that argument, it would have been ”devastating” for student journalists, as school districts across the country would undoubtedly rethink their student media policies.

The lawsuit has not had a noticeable ripple effect yet, but it did have effects in the Puyallup school district. At the beginning of the lawsuit in 2008, the district revoked its student newspapers’ open-forum status — under which students, not administrators, make the content decisions — and instituted a policy of prior review, which student editors say has been discouraging.

Former JagWire Editor Amanda Wyma, who graduated in June, said that since the introduction of the new policy, she saw her fellow reporters shy away from covering more difficult topics, because they feared censorship.

Wyma and three other student editors from the district’s three high schools formed a group called ”Fight for the Right to Write” to work with district administrators to return to a policy without prior review or prior restraint.

”An open forum would give [students] the chance to cover the things that really matter,” Wyma said.

Giving students an opportunity to make mistakes is the only way for students to learn, said Allie Rickard, the new JagWire editor-in-chief and another member of the group.

”I think that journalism in high school is a wonderful experience, because we actually have the opportunity not just to learn about journalism, but we have the opportunity to actually be practicing responsible journalism,” she said.

The group’s efforts to overturn the policy, including a public meeting, a website, T-shirts and addressing the school board, have impressed members of the Puyallup School District Board of Directors.

Board President Diana Seeley said the students have been ”very professional” throughout the lawsuit and ongoing discussions about the district’s policy.

”It’s been a very good process,” Seeley said. ”Working with the students has been very good. These are very intelligent, well-versed, well-educated students. And they’ve made us proud. It’s a good scenario under maybe some difficult circumstances.”

The board was so impressed with the students’ efforts that it composed a proposal for student free expression legislation and asked the Washington State School Directors’ Association to endorse it.

The proposal would allow school districts to give student editors control over the content of student media, in exchange for legal recognition from the state that the school is not liable for that content.

That recognition is something the district wants before they return to an open-forum policy, Seeley said.

”I think certainly [the lawsuit] helped our district bring this to the forefront, but we’ve had an opportunity to speak with the students that are involved, not only at Emerald Ridge, but at the other schools in our district,” she said. ”And we understand their concerns. We want to support them. But in order for us to support them, this legislation has to happen.”

WSSDA board members, who opposed a similar bill in 2007, turned down the idea of supporting the proposal of the Puyallup school district. But Seeley said that is not the end of the proposal.

The school board voted unanimously to take it to the WSSDA legislative assembly in Vancouver, Wash., where district representatives vote in September on the association’s legislative priorities for the next year.

”It is something that we’re hoping people will take advantage of, this potential, because it’s not just our district that needs to be looking at this but other districts across our state,” she said.

Hiestand said this is the first time a school board has proposed this kind of legislation, and it could have a broad impact.

”This is really something that we haven’t seen before — a school district actually coming out with a proposal that, I think, might have some legs here,” he said. ”This is something I could really see a lot of other school districts, and other states even, getting on board with.”

The original student free expression bill filed in 2007 passed the state’s House of Representatives with protections for high school and college journalists, but the Senate Judiciary Committee removed the protections for high school students, and the bill did not come up for a vote on the Senate floor. Similar bills in 2008 and 2009 died in committee.

Student free expression laws exist in seven states — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon. They are in large part a reaction to the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which said public high school newspapers are subject to reduced First Amendment protections unless they are established as public forums.

Attorney Don Austin was one of the loudest voices to speak out against the 2007 bill.

Austin, who represents several Washington school districts, was one of three who testified against the bill in a hearing of the Washington State Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2007 — in a room full of high school students looking on in disapproval.

”I felt like the Grinch that stole Christmas when I went in there,” he said. ”There were 100 kids there, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Holy cow.’ ”

Austin said he and others were caught off guard with the bill and were concerned about the potential of a ”backdoor for lawsuits.”

But this time around he is willing to help create a bill that would include better language — one that he and other former opponents could support, Austin said.

What changed?

”In the lawsuit I was involved in, I saw some very competent kids and very competent adults,” Austin said.

While helping represent the Puyallup School District in the 2008 lawsuit involving the JagWire, he talked to students about how they ran the newspaper.

Austin, who taught high school English for 16 years, also spoke with JagWire adviser Kevin Smyth about what he taught in his journalism class and how students learn in an open-forum classroom.

”The approach to instruction done in an open-forum classroom, I think, is different than the instruction done in a non-open-forum classroom,” he said.

After consulting with journalism education experts who agreed that an open forum, such as the one JagWire operated under, was the best model for students to learn, Austin was convinced.

”I guess really researching the process in this case really led me to conclude that open forum is a process that can work,” he said.

Three of the four original students of ”Fight for the Write to Right” have graduated, but others have stepped up to take their place, said Rickard, currently a senior and the only one of the original group yet to graduate.

Now the group is opening its ranks to students across Washington state to push for legislation that will allow students to publish without prior review and prior restraint.

Rickard said the group is contacting other student editors via e-mail and through the state’s journalism workshops in the summer and fall to make the movement a statewide effort.

”What we’re hoping to do is give them the tools and compile an informational how-to packet to give them to start their own movement in their school districts,” she said.

The group will encourage students to talk to their fellow student journalists, principals, school boards and senators and representatives to get support, Rickard said.

”We really believe that this needs to be a movement for students, by students,” she said.

By Josh Moore, SPLC staff writer