Former student sues Fla. district for libel over student newspaper photo

FLORIDA — Theschool district in Miami-Dade County is being sued for libel over a photo inone of its student newspapers.

The photo of Kenneth Clements, then a senior at Ronald W.Reagan/Doral Senior High School, allegedly appeared in a February 2011 issue ofthe Reagan Advocate next to a storyabout sexually transmitted diseases.

The image showed Clements from the shoulders up with an “X”Photoshopped over his mouth, said Harry Shevin, Clements’ attorney.

The school board attorney’s office said the district has notyet received the lawsuit and cannot comment on it.

According to a reproduction provided by Shevin to the Miami New Times, the photo is located inthe middle of the story, below the headline “Teens stay quiet about STD’s.”

Shevin alleges that the page, published Feb. 4, 2011,falsely suggested Clements had a sexually transmitted disease.

The original black and white photo shows Clements with ablurred face, but “no one had any trouble figuring out it was him,” Shevinsaid. Clements was not aware that his photo would be used for the story, wasnever interviewed and didn’t grant permission for the use of his photo, Shevinsaid.

“Publication was made with malice toward truth, as theplaintiff was chosen as the poster child for a teen with sexually transmitteddisease, even though there was absolutely no basis to conclude he hadcontracted such a disease,” the complaint reads.

Shevin said the photo ruined the student’s reputation andmade him a social outcast.

“The concept of a teenage boy having a sexually transmitteddisease is very demoralizing and hampered what should have been the best yearof his life,” Shevin said.

The complaint claims the district had a prior review processin which both the adviser and school principal had final approval over content.

Shevin said he is seeking more than $15,000 for the harmdone to Clements’ reputation.

“We’re hoping a monetary award will deter others from suchrecklessness,” Shevin said. “It is the responsibility of the press not todefame people on subjects like this that are clearly out of bounds.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said an important defense for the district would be that it followedgood First Amendment practices.

He cited a recent Washington State case in which a judgeruled Seattle Public Schools was not liable for a student’s allegedly defamatorynewspaper story. The judge held that because the paper was student-edited and schooladministrators did not censor it, they could not be held responsible for thecontent. That decision is being appealed.

“The reality is people almost never bring lawsuits about thecontent of a student newspaper,” LoMonte said. “This happens maybe one to twotimes a year. It’s extremely rare.”

He said context will be important in the Miami-Dade case.

“The key is going to be the circumstances in which the photowas taken and what a reasonable person looking at the page would think,”LoMonte said. “It’s all about if a reasonable reader would think the photo wasan illustration of someone who has an STD.”