High school newspaper's article about Seattle landlord was not defamatory, appeals court rules

WASHINGTON — A Seattle landlord failed to prove a high-school newspaper defamed him, an appeals court determined Monday, two years after the court decided the same article did not defame his brother.

Drake Sisley and his wife, Antoinette Sisley, filed a defamation suit against the Seattle School District after Roosevelt High School’s The Roosevelt Times published a news story that said Sisley-owned properties were colloquially known as “crack shacks” and claimed the Sisley brothers had “been accused of racist renting policies,” among other things.

The appeals court did not address whether schools can be held liable for student speech.

Drake Sisley’s brother, Hugh Sisley, filed a separate lawsuit against the school district over the same story, which has already resolved.

Washington attorney Ray Siderius, who represented Drake and Antoinette Sisley, said Drake Sisley didn’t own the properties portrayed in the 2009 article written by then-student Emily Shugerman.

The unpublished court opinion said that while Sisley argued he owned properties outside the Roosevelt District , “at least four of his rental properties are within approximately one mile of the high school.” The court also found that Sisley had evidence that a building manager had been criminally convicted of racially motivated hate crimes. Because of these facts, Sisley did not prove that Shugerman’s article was defamatory.

Neither Sisley brother opted to sue Shugerman, instead deciding that the school district failed to stop the publication of a libelous story, calling the student newspaper “school-sponsored speech.” Siderius said the court decision “ignored most of the things this case was about.”

“They had the right to constitutionally stop publication of a false and defamatory article, and they didn’t do that,” Siderius said. “Whether we appeal or not, I don’t know.”

Jeffrey Freimund, the school district’s attorney, said he and his clients were seeking a “broader ruling” that school districts do not have a duty to control student speech on behalf of the general public.

“To that end, we’re a little disappointed,” Freimund said.

That doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t ever have a right to intervene in student publications, he said.

“They do if it defames another student,” Freimund said. “That is part of the school’s responsibility — to protect students in their custody, which might extend to one student defaming another student, in my eyes.”

Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said that she was glad the student reporter’s name had been cleared, but that she also wished the court had taken its ruling a step further.

“It would have been nice to see the court go a little further and say, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re suing the school district for something they weren’t responsible for anyway,’” Schrier said.

Schrier said the school district’s attempts to make the court address this issue were “meek,” but Freimund said it was a main concern and the focus of the defendants’ oral argument.

“That was definitely argued, and in fact the (lower) trial court ruled that way,” he said. The appeals court “understandably elected not to rule on that broader question and ruled on that narrower ground.”

All in all, though, Freimund reiterated, the Seattle School District is happy with the ruling.

Shugerman, the article’s author, is now the managing editor of Occidental Weekly, Occidental College’s student-run newspaper. She said she hasn’t been regularly following the court cases, but she was glad to hear the court’s decision.

“I haven’t heard any updates from anyone,” she said. “This is all kind of a surprise.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.