California high school reporters fight for access to sealed documents, controversial video

CALIFORNIA— Student reporters in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District are pushing back against the decision to seal court documents containing a controversial video made by a fellow student.

Anumita Jain and Armaan Rashid, reporters for the Dougherty High School student newspaper The Wildcat Tribune, filed a motion Oct. 13 to gain access to sealed court documents containing a controversial campaign video made by a San Ramon Valley High School student running for student body president.

The video, posted to the student’s Twitter account, allegedly depicted, “fictional terrorists abducting and torturing a student,” and made, “repeated racist and insensitive references to Middle Eastern people, stereotyping them based on their dress, accents and language, names, manner of praying and religious dietary restrictions,” according to the motion to unseal the records.

Few people have actually seen the video. It was taken down shortly after it was posted and was sealed, along with other documents, by the Contra Costa County Superior Court as part of an ongoing legal battle between the parents of the student who made the video and the school district. 

“How do you report on a lawsuit about a video almost no one had seen and almost everyone had heard about?”

The school rescinded the student’s student government candidacy for violating the code of conduct they had signed for the race. However, the student’s name was not removed from the ballot and they won the presidency. The school gave the position to the student’s opponent. 

The student filed a petition to compel school district officials to restore them to the position and was denied. Instead, the court encouraged the student to pursue civil action to get what they wanted. The school district reversed its decision soon after and reinstated the student as ASB President. The student’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging that the school’s punishment of their child was unconstitutional. 

On May 23, more than 50 people came to a school district board meeting to protest the video and response. A few days later, hundreds of students at San Ramon Valley High School walked out of classes to protest the school district’s decision to reinstate the student as student body president. 

Jain and Rashid felt compelled to investigate the case after witnessing the strong reactions from their classmates and the community. Their diverse student community was upset by both the video and the school district’s reaction to the it.

Jain and Rashid were faced with a puzzling question presented by this case: how do you report on a lawsuit about a video almost no one had seen and almost everyone had heard about?

The answer, they decided, was to get the video unsealed. “To report in a thorough, accurate and verifiable manner on this situation, Rashid and Jain seek access to these records,” reads the motion to unseal the records.

Rashid and Jain made multiple attempts to gain access to the documents before filing the motion. They submitted a public records requests to the Contra Costa County Court Records department and to the school district superintendent; both were denied.

They went in person to the courthouse to request the case file from the clerk’s office and were told the judge sealed the records three days prior to their visit. They were also told that not only was the entire case sealed, but even the reason for sealing the records was sealed. 

Jain and Rashid contacted the Student Press Law Center for help. The SPLC referred them to volunteer attorneys Dennis Herman and John George from Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.

“The interesting thing about this case is we really don’t know what happened,” Herman said. 

Without access to the judge’s order for sealing and the required findings within it, there’s no way for the public to know whether the sealing of the information is justified, Herman said.

Also, without knowing the reasons and information used by the court to justify sealing, any motions aiming to unseal a case, like the one filed by the student reporters, can’t directly challenge the legal or factual basis for sealing.

Herman said the purpose of filing the motion in this case is to do just that: to figure out why the entire record was sealed and to investigate whether there was an adequate ground for sealing. 

He anticipates that those involved with the case will file their responses to the motion to unseal between now and the hearing, which is set for early December.

If you’re a student journalist requiring legal assistance or have legal questions about a story you’re covering, schedule a call with our lawyer or put in a legal request.

SPLC staff writer Emily Goodell can be reached by email, by phone at (202) 478-1926, or on Twitter @GoodellEmily .

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