MRB et al v. Puyallup School District

282 P.3d 1124 (Wash. Ct. App. 2012)

In February 2008, after learning about a report that said more than half of teens aged 15 to 19 had engaged in oral sex, students reporters at Emerald Ridge High School decided to run a series of articles on the subject in their paper, the JagWire. One of the articles included a series of interviews with students about their experiences with oral sex. When the article was published, the students quoted and their parents complained, saying they had not given consent for their names to be used. JagWire staff said the reporter clearly identified herself as a reporter and gave the students several opportunities to request anonymity, but they declined.

The families of the students quoted sued, alleging that the paper published “private details” about the students without their consent. A district court jury ruled in favor of the school district and the student journalists, saying that they acted appropriately and that the students quoted had given their consent. The families appealed the ruling to the state’s court of appeals, arguing that the school district’s policy of allowing the newspaper to operate as an “open forum” for student expression was negligent.

The SPLC brief emphasized that student editorial autonomy is considered to be an educational “best practice” among journalism educators and not a form of negligence, as the families contended. The brief asked the court to uphold the jury’s findings.

The Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2 affirmed the lower court’s ruling, holding that the high school newspaper was correctly identified as a limited open forum and the school district was not negligent in failing to control the content of the paper.