Seattle school not liable for student newspaper story about landlord

WASHINGTON Publichigh schools are not liable for the content of student-run newspapers, aWashington state court judge ruled Friday, rejecting a Seattle landlord’s libellawsuit.

The ruling is the first to explicitly establish liabilityprotection at the high school level, said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorneyfor the Student Press Law Center.

“High school media very rarely gets sued,” he said. “And inno case has there ever been a situation that a school district has been heldliable for something their student media wrote.”

Hiestand said school districts commonly fear being heldaccountable for content published by student media and tend to censor in orderto protect themselves from legal liability.

However, Hiestand said Friday’s ruling is a clear sign toschool districts that allowing students to make editorial decisions canactually insulate the school against liability for any wrongdoing.

“This decision kind of echoes what is in the law at thecollege level. If you don’t give the student media the official seal ofapproval you won’t be held liable,” Hiestand said.

A March 2009 article in TheRoosevelt News written by Roosevelt High School student Emily Shuggermancentered on the rental practices of Hugh and Drake Sisley.

Hugh is a landlord who owns several properties in theSeattle area. Drake, his brother, was also implicated in the story and named asa landlord.

The brothers sued Seattle Public Schools alleging thatShuggerman’s article defamed them and that the district is liable.

In the article Shuggerman wrote that the brothers had “beenaccused of racist renting policies,” according to court documents — a statementthe brothers dispute.

Drake and Hugh filed two separate libel lawsuits against theschool district. Hugh filed his suit in conjunction with his wife, Martha, onMarch 10, 2010.

Jeffrey Freimund, attorney for the school district, filed a motion for summaryjudgment of Hugh and Martha’s case, arguing that the student newspaper’sactions were not the district’s responsibility because students are not “agentsor employees” of the district.

The motion also argued that if the school was liable for thestudents it still could not have censored the paper without violating the students’First Amendment rights.

The district went further, arguing that the article’s claimwas a “non-actionable opinion” and therefore not libelous.

On Friday, Judge Kimberly Prochnau dismissed Hugh and Martha’s case, grantingsummary judgment on every ground put forth by the district.

“As a matter of law, plaintiffs are unable to prove that,consistent with the First Amendment, the [district] should have censored thestudent’s speech,” the judge’s order reads.

Jeffrey Grant, attorney for Hugh and Martha, said he has notdecided whether to appeal Friday’s ruling.

Drake’s separate lawsuit, joined by his wife, Antoinette,was filed in the same court March 28, 2011. The couple’s lawyer, Ray Siderius,said he is reviewing Friday’s decision but does not anticipate the ruling will affecthis clients’ case.

In their lawsuit, Drake and Antoinette argue that the March2009 article is incorrect in that it states Drake is a landlord, that he has a badreputation among local and city officials, and that he has been accused ofracist renting practices.

According to the lawsuit, Drake does not “own, manage orhave anything to do with the properties described in [the] article.”

Drake and Antoinette argue that the alleged defamatorycomments were “caused by negligence on the part of the faculty advisers to The Roosevelt News and by the principal.”

At Roosevelt High the student newspaper has one facultyadviser that does not edit or censor the paper. The adviser is there to advisestudents as they work on each issue of the News.

Hiestand said Friday’s decision might prompt schooldistricts to reexamine the role of faculty advisers to ensure liability is notplaced on the school district.

“This is a signal to liability-wary school districts thatthey need to rethink how they treat their student media and how they manageit,” Hiestand said.

“An adviser’s role — as long as it is limited to providingadvice — should not be a problem. It is when advisers become editors and takedirect responsibility over content, that is when the liability question becomesa problem.”

Freimund, the school district’s attorney, did not respond torequests for comment by press time.