WASHINGTON — Fouryears after students at a Washington high school sued their school district forinvasion of privacy over a student newspaper story, an appeals court is set tohear their case in January.
The former Emerald Ridge High School students sued thePuyallup School District after a 2008 article in the high school paper, the JagWire, quoted them by name in regards to their sexual habits.
A Pierce County jury found in April 2010 that the paper didnot invade the students’ privacy. The plaintiffs argued they had not givenconsent to the paper to print their names and “private details.” The jury,however, determined the student reporters had clearly identified themselves andby speaking with them, the plaintiffs had consented to have their informationpublished.
One month later, the students filed an appeal.
The Washington Court of Appeals in Tacoma will hear the caseJan. 20.
Jack Connelly, representing the plaintiffs, said theirappeal is based on “erroneous” constitutional analysis the defense tried to“force on the court.”
At the heart of the appellants’ brief is the argument thatDistrict Judge Susan Serko mishandled the case by ruling that the JagWire was a “limited open forum.”
“The trial court compounded the error by allowing theDistrict to introduce improper legal opinions regarding the law of the FirstAmendment and the so-called ‘open forum,’” the brief reads.
Mike Patterson, an attorney for the district, said Serkodealt with the case “carefully” and expressed optimism in defeating the appeal.
“I think it’s just a matter of the court not getting caughtup in a lot of fallacious arguments that have been thrown out there by theplaintiffs,” Patterson said of the appeal.
The publication has long been seen — by students, adviserand principal — as an open forum, according to the school district’s brief inthe appellate court.
“‘Open forum’ denotes a widely understood — and widelypracticed — journalism pedagogy in which student journalists have theresponsibility to select topics, develop and write stories … and do so withoutcensorship as long as they adhere to a limited set of restrictions,” the briefreads.
But what Serko’s order did confuse was the status of whethera “limited open forum” was subject to the Hazelwood or Tinker standards, said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center.
Typically, a paper deemed a limited forum would be analyzedunder the Tinker v. Des Moinesruling, which prevents administrators from restricting expression unless theycan clearly demonstrate the speech would cause a disruption.
In her order, Serko tied the JagWire’s limited forum status to the ruling in the Supreme Court’smore restrictive Hazelwood SchoolDistrict v. Kuhlmeier decision, which was a misstep, Hiestand said.
Forum status is just one of the issues for the appellatecourt’s consideration. The SPLC is filing a friend-of-the-court brief insupport of the district, which disputes the appellants’ assertion that allowingstudents to make their own content decisions is ‘negligence’ on the school’spart, Hiestand said.
“That’s not right. Every journalism education group in thecountry says that allowing students authority to make editorial decisions isthe right way to teach journalism,” he said. “It’s the farthest thing fromeducational malpractice.”
While the newspaper’s open forum status has been debated inthe courtroom, student journalists at Emerald Ridge have been operating under asystem of prior review, implemented in the wake of the lawsuit.
The policy, enacted in August 2008, required the schoolprincipal to review all copy prior to publication.
For Allie Rickard, who served as JagWire editor in chief two years after the school had been sued,the specter of prior review was frustrating, especially once the trial courtruled in favor of the school district.
“I think the biggest impact that it had … [is] it left thisfeeling that we should self-censor ourselves,” Rickard said.
Once the case had been resolved, there was a feeling amongthe students that the prior review, which they saw as a response to thelawsuit, should end, said Rickard, now a college freshman at Barnard College.
And now as the case moves through the appellate stage, shesaid she hopes students still at the school will continue fighting to scrap therestraints on publication.
“This whole situation is unfortunate,” she said.
Hiestand said he hopes the appeals judge will be able to cutthrough the fog of technicalities and bring the case back to its originalpoint.
“This was an invasion of privacy case. The question was verysimply, ‘Did the students give consent to have their names published in thisarticle?’” he said. “The jury found that they provided valid consent, andthat’s the end of the story.”