Privacy suit against Wash. school district ends favorably for student newspaper

A long-running Washington lawsuit, attempting to hold a public school liable for embarrassing facts published in a student-run newspaper, has concluded with no liability for the school.

The Washington Supreme Court decided Jan. 8 not to hear the appeal in an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the Puyallup School District brought on behalf of four former students. The plaintiffs alleged that they were quote by name, without their consent, in a newspaper story discussing students’ sexual habits.

Five Washington justices unanimously voted to deny the petition for review. As is customary, their order was brief and provided no explanation.

The justices’ decision means that the August 2012 ruling of the Washington Court of Appeals, which affirmed a jury verdict against the student plaintiffs, becomes final.

The case arose out of a 2008 package of stories in the Emerald Ridge High School student paper, The Jagwire, in which student journalists detailed the pervasiveness of casual sex among young people in an attempt to raise public awareness. They accomplished that — but they also drew the ire of some students whose quotes made them appear promiscuous. Although the truthfulness of the articles was not disputed, several students complained that they agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity — a claim the student journalists forcefully denied.

In April 2010, a Pierce County, Wash., jury ruled in the school’s favor on all counts, awarding the student plaintiffs nothing.

In their appeal, counsel for the student plaintiffs argued — unsuccessfully, it turned out — that the school district prevailed only because the jury was misled into thinking that the newspaper was an “open forum” over which the school had no control.

Ironically, although the school’s practice of allowing students to make their own news judgments was integral to its successful legal defense, the school stripped the students of editorial autonomy after the suit was filed.

Neither The Jagwire nor any individual journalist was named as a defendant in the case, but a ruling against the school would have had hurtful repercussions for the independence of student journalism as a whole.

The outcome preserves the “undefeated record” of scholastic media in the (highly rare) occurrence of litigation. There remains no published judicial opinion, ever, that resulted in a school paying damages to anyone for material in a student publication.