Wash. appeals court considers landlord’s libel suit over high school newspaper

The Washington Court of Appeals heard arguments in a libel suit against the student newspaper at Roosevelt High School on Monday, a case raising the issue of a school district’s liability for stories written by student journalists.

Landlord Hugh Sisley brought the lawsuit against the Seattle School District after The Roosevelt News published a story in 2009 claiming Sisley had “been accused of racist renting policies.” Sisley and his wife deny those allegations and claim the story defamed them.

Superior Court Judge Kimberly Prochnau sided with the school district last year, finding both that the story was not libelous and also that the school could not be held liable for the work of student journalists who are not the school’s agents or employees.

On appeal, the Sisleys are challenging both of those findings and want the case to go forward to a trial.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court heard oral arguments in the case Monday morning, appearing skeptical of arguments from both sides.

School district attorney Jeff Freimund faced questions on the school’s liability for newspaper content, while the Sisleys’ attorney, Jeff Grant, was questioned on whether the story itself could be libelous.

In legal briefs, the school district argues that it can’t be held liable for the story because the First Amendment prohibited school officials from censoring it. Under the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood standard, schools can censor content only for legitimate educational reasons, the district’s attorney wrote.

“Here, no valid educational purpose would be served by censoring a student’s free speech right to report that a local slumlord had been ‘accused of racist renting policies,’” according to the district’s brief.

The Sisleys counter that the school district not only has the right but the “legal responsibility to regulate the content of its student newspaper.”

In legal briefs, they argue that the student who wrote the story was acting on behalf of the school district and that accuracy in reporting is a legitimate educational concern that would have justified stopping the story.

Two of the judges appeared skeptical of the school district’s argument, citing the newspaper’s financial relationship with the school.

“But there’s no cases that I know of… that says that in this situation if a school district hews to this protocol or some protocol that they can structure their journalism departments or their student newspaper in such a way that they can sort of lay back and say, “OK students, go out and cover the news. Do your best and we aren’t going to be liable for it,'” Judge Mary Kay Becker said.

Freimund attempted to make a larger point about school liability, arguing that the district should not be held liable to members of the community if students are accused of intentional wrongdoing. He said the case might be different if the allegations in the newspaper were about another student. The fact that the newspaper’s adviser had a “hands-off” approach was not particularly important, Freimund said, because the school does not have an obligation to outside parties to prevent libel by students.

On the merits of the libel claim, the school district cites other media coverage of Keith Gilbert, Sisley’s alleged former property manager, who was convicted of interfering with housing rights through the threat of force. Gilbert was a white supremacist and former member of the Aryan Nations, according to a 1989 federal appeals court decision.

The Sisleys maintain none of that is evidence that Sisley himself was ever accused of racist renting policies.

It could be several months before the court issues a decision.

Sisley’s brother, Drake Sisley, filed a separate libel suit over the story. That case is pending in King County Superior Court.