Student editors challenge prior review of newspaper

By The Associated Press
12.16.05

SEATTLE — The co-editors of the student newspaper at Everett High School have sued the school district, claiming officials are violating their free-speech rights by demanding to review editions of the paper before distribution.

The editors, Sara Michelle Eccleston and Claire Marie Lueneburg, argued in their Dec. 14 lawsuit that since 1989 the newspaper, the Kodak, has served as a public forum for students, with no content oversight by school administrators, and that as such, the district's ability to demand editorial control is severely limited.

But district spokeswoman Gay Campbell says there has been consistent school oversight of the newspaper, and that the district has an explicit policy allowing prepublication review.

"We've complied with the law in every way," she said. "We're sorry the students have decided to take this course of action."

Mitch Cogdill, the students' lawyer, says the root of the controversy is that the Kodak reported on the hiring of the high school's new principal, Catherine Matthews, who took over this fall. Matthews was the third choice of the students on the hiring committee, and the Kodak ran articles suggesting their voice was ignored.

In October, 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," the lawsuit said.

Eccleston, 17, and Lueneburg, 18, refused to submit to prepublication review. They appealed to the superintendent and the school board, to no avail.

"No principal had asked to review it before, even though it is provided for in the policy," Lueneburg said on Dec. 14. "All of our options were kind of used up."

Campbell argued that previous principals have, in fact, reviewed the newspaper before publication. The district has obtained a statement from one to that effect.

The lawsuit was filed in Snohomish County Superior Court, but was immediately transferred by the district to federal court in Seattle.

While there is a faculty adviser to the Kodak, the adviser's role is limited to helping edit syntax and punctuation, the editors said. The district's policy allowing editorial oversight by administrators was adopted in the mid-1990s but never exercised — meaning that as a practical matter, the newspaper remained a public forum for students, they said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that school districts have very limited authority to exercise censorship in public forums, but 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 Supreme Court ruled in 1988 in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that public school officials can censor school-sponsored student expression as long as they have a valid educational reason for doing so.

The editors argue that the historical lack of oversight by the principal and the longstanding use of the phrase "student forum" in the masthead shows that, by practice, the newspaper is a public forum.

The lawsuit seeks to restore editorial control to the students and asks for damages to be awarded at trial. But Lueneburg also said she'd like to see another outcome: That the Legislature create protections for student journalists, as some states already have.