Wash. students named in promiscuity story ask state Supreme Court to reinstate lawsuit

WASHINGTON – The four former students who unsuccessfully sued a Washington school district over a student newspaper article about students’ promiscuity have filed a petition for appeal to the Washington Supreme Court.

The students are asking the court to review last month’s ruling by the state Court of Appeals denying them a new trial.

In February 2008, the student newspaper of Emerald Ridge High School, the JagWire, published an issue featuring articles about oral sex that included quotes from the students about their views on sex.

The students filed a claim against the Puyallup School District in 2008 alleging invasion of privacy and negligence by the school. The students’ claims were rejected in 2010 by a Pierce County jury. The state’s Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in August.

Now the students are seeking a review of the decision, claiming that the school district’s witnesses shouldn’t have been allowed to testify about the extent to which the JagWire’s article was protected under the First Amendment. The petition also questions whether the JagWire was a limited public forum or a non-public forum.

A student paper’s “forum status” is a distinction made in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which characterizes student newspapers as limited or non-public forums unless they have both a policy and practice establishing it as a public forum. In a non-public forum, which the students say applies to the JagWire, schools can censor student work.

Hazelwood narrowed the free speech protections given to students in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said speech could not be punished or prohibited unless it invaded the rights of others or caused a substantial disruption to the school.

Nathan Roberts, the attorney representing the students, said in an email that they filed the petition because they did not think the appeals court addressed the substance of the students’ appeal.

The Washington Supreme Court hears cases on a discretionary basis, meaning it does not have to take the students’ case. The appeals court’s decision was unanimous, making it unlikely that the petition will be granted.

Mike Patterson, the school district’s attorney, said some of the claims in the petition are untrue and that the district plans to seek attorneys’ fees and costs.

In response to Roberts’ allegations, Patterson denied that the jury was confused by legal arguments about the public forum standard. He said attorneys did mention in court how Puyallup’s journalism class was run, but only in the context of teaching methods.

“As I explained to the Court of Appeals, they must have been trying a case in a different courtroom than I was,” Patterson said.

By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contract Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.