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Prior review prevails in Wash. school district

By The Associated Press

EVERETT, Wash. — Two former editors of the Everett High newspaper have settled their lawsuit against the school district, with little to show for their year-and-a-half of legal efforts.

Kodak editors Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston sued in late 2005, claiming officials violated their free-speech rights by demanding to review editions of the paper before distribution.

In a settlement approved by the school board last week, the pair acknowledged that the district may review issues before publication, as called for in district policy. They also agreed that the paper's masthead be changed to clarify that. The previous masthead claimed the newspaper was not subject to prior review by school administrators, faculty or community members.

Nevertheless, the students tried to put a positive spin on the outcome.

"I feel like this pretty much gets us exactly what we wanted," Lueneburg told The Herald newspaper of Everett. "I think we have achieved everything and this is a victory for us."

When the lawsuit was filed in late 2005, the student's lawyer, Mitch Cogdill, said the root of the controversy was that the Kodak reported on the hiring of the high school's new principal, Catherine Matthews. She was the third choice of the students on the hiring committee, and the newspaper ran articles suggesting the students' voices were ignored.

In October 2005, Matthews told the Kodak staff that the paper couldn't be published unless she approved it in advance. She also objected to the masthead, which identified the Kodak as a "student forum," according to the lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that school districts have very limited authority to exercise censorship in public forums. However, the Court found in its 1988 decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school newspapers put together in a class, overseen by a faculty adviser, and published using school resources — like the Kodak — are not considered a public forum unless the school district, by policy or practice, has set them up to be such a forum.

The editors argued that the principal and other school officials had historically not exercised their right to pre-publication review. Therefore, in practice, the newspaper was a public forum, they argued.

Michael Patterson, the school district's attorney, disagreed and said the students were trying to "save face" by claiming victory.

"We always had the right of prior review," Patterson said.

"They absolutely lost. This is a total vindication for the Everett School District."

The district's written policies encourage student publications to cover controversial topics, as long as the articles are not libelous, obscene or profane; would demean others or invade their privacy; or cause a substantial disruption of the school.

The policy says the principal may request to review any newspaper copy prior to publication — not just stories about controversial topics as the former students claimed in their lawsuit. Any disputes that cannot be resolved within the school are to be brought to the district superintendent.

A bill to expand the free-speech rights of high school and college journalists in the state failed to gain approval during the 2007 Legislature. The bill, introduced by state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, would have ensured student journalists aren't censored.

Student editors challenge prior review of newspaper
Washington teens sue, arguing that since 1989, Kodak has served as public forum for Everett High students, with no content oversight by school administrators. 12.16.05


Wash. state student-press bill dies

By Melanie Bengtson Other student press-freedom bills await action in Oregon, Illinois, Michigan. 05.11.07

K-12 newspapers & yearbooks

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