SPLC, scholastic journalism groups support Washington students in privacy suit

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”) is urging the Washington Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court’s decision that a high school newspaper did not invade students’ privacy by publishing a story calling attention to the problem of teen promiscuity.

In a friend-of-the-court brief joined by the nation’s preeminent journalism education organizations, the SPLC emphasizes that allowing student editors to make the final decision on editorial content is consistent with the First Amendment and with the best educational practices universally recognized in the journalism teaching field.

The case, M.R.B. v. Puyallup School District, originated four years ago when the Emerald Ridge High School student newspaper, the JagWire, decided to localize a national news story about a federal survey that found more than 50 percent of teens ages 15-19 had engaged in oral sex. The staff chose to include the names of the students quoted in the news story – with their consent – to add greater impact and validity to the coverage.

Several former Emerald Ridge High School students and their parents sued the Puyallup School District, alleging they had not given consent to the use of their names and “private details.” A Pierce County, Wash., jury found in April 2010 that the paper did not invade the students’ privacy. The jury determined the student reporters had clearly identified themselves and, by speaking with them, the plaintiffs had consented to have their information published.

The students appealed the decision, alleging the Puyallup School District’s practice of operating the newspaper as an uncensored “forum” for student expression was negligent and allowed student editors too much editorial freedom.

The SPLC, which was joined in the brief by the Washington Journalism Education Association, Journalism Education Association, the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and the National Scholastic Press Association, joined the case as a friend-of-the-court to emphasize that student editorial autonomy is accepted as an educational “best practice” for instructing young journalists and citizens.

The amicus brief states, “[S]tudent journalists — like athletes, musicians and others — learn most effectively and achieve their fullest potential when teachers provide them the tools and lessons they need to succeed, and allow students to use them, so long as they operate within established rules. According to the open forum model, a student newspaper, for example, should be created primarily by students, not school administrators or teachers. Like high school coaches and their players, under the open forum model journalism teachers teach; journalism students do the journalism.”

The brief, filed Wednesday, points out that the teaching method that the plaintiffs call “negligent” has been established law in the state of California for 34 years, and subsequently adopted as law by six other states. It notes that the Supreme Court itself in the seminal 1988 case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, recognized the legitimacy of operating a campus newspaper as a student-run “forum.”

The brief concludes: “Contrary to appellants’ claims, allowing student editors to determine the content of the student media they publish, as long as they adhere to the law in doing so, is a well-established instructional method endorsed and widely supported by journalism education groups and others. It is also reflected in the laws of several states and by the scholastic journalism curriculum guidelines adopted by the state of Washington.”

The brief was prepared with the assistance of attorneys Ambika Doran and Nigel Avilez in the Seattle office of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, one of the nation’s leading media-law and litigation firms with offices in five states, the District of Columbia, and Taiwan.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has served as the nation’s only nonprofit legal assistance service dedicated to the needs of student journalists and the educators who work with them. More information about the work of the Student Press Law Center is available on its website at www.splc.org.