Landlord appealing libel case involving Seattle high school paper

WASHINGTON — An attorney for a Seattle landlord who accused a high schoolnewspaper of libel and defamation has appealed the dismissal of his case,marking the next stage in a legal dispute with the city’s school district.

Hugh Sisley and his wife, Martha, sued the Seattle SchoolDistrict in March 2010 in response to a 2009 story in Roosevelt High School’snewspaper. The Roosevelt Newsreported that Sisley and his brother, Drake, had been “accused of racistrenting practices” at the properties they own near the school — referred to inthe article as the “Sisley slums.”

A Washington state court judge dismissed that case in July,granting summary judgment on seven grounds.

Jeffrey Gray, Hugh and Martha’s lawyer, filed a notice onAug. 16 that he will appeal the case to the Washington Court of Appeals.

In her July 22 judgment, Superior Court Judge KimberlyProchnau ruled that the school district was not liable for allegedly libelousstatements from student media. Furthermore, the story’s “non-actionableopinion” was not defamatory by legal standards, the ruling states.

Gray will once again argue — now in front of the appellatecourt — that not only was the article defamatory, but that, because thenewspaper is part of class curriculum, the school district should beaccountable for the publication’s content.

“It certainly seemed to us that the school would beresponsible for this school-sponsored activity,” Gray said. “Part of all ofthis is the idea that the school has a responsibility — if it’s trying to teachstudents how to be journalists, there’s a responsibility to make sure theinformation is accurate.”

In her summary judgment, Prochnau ruled that the plaintiffswere unable to prove that the school district, in keeping with the FirstAmendment, should have censored the students’ speech.

With summary judgment in hand, the defense is “cautiouslyoptimistic” on the chances of prevailing in the appeal, said Jeffrey Freimund,the school district’s attorney.

“I think it does help to have multiple bases to argue infront of the appellate court,” Freimund said. “I think the facts in this caseare helpful to the school district and the law defends them as well.”

Gray said he thinks the appellate level — with its threejudges — will make for a more sympathetic venue. The process, which could lastfrom nine months to a year, allows judges time to focus on the “nuances” of theargument, he said.

The trial court also ruled that Martha Sisley was unable toprove she was the target of defamation because she is not mentioned in thearticle. That too will be appealed, Gray said, because Martha’s reputation isso closely tied to that of her husband.

Drake Sisley, along with wife Antoinette, filed a separatelawsuit in March 2011 against the school district. Drake Sisley’s defamationclaim differs slightly from Hugh’s, Freimund said, because he did not own theproperties directly across from the school as the Roosevelt story claimed. Heinstead operates similar dwellings a few blocks away.

A trial in that case is set for Sept. 12, 2012.