TACOMA, Wash. — A trial began in Pierce County Superior Court this week that pits the First Amendment against the right to privacy, the Puyallup School District against four of its former students, and friends against friends.
At issue is a package of stories on oral sex that ran in the February 2008 edition of the Emerald Ridge High School student newspaper, The JagWire. The package addressed the prevalence of oral sex among school students and health concerns associated with it.
Four students quoted in the package contend they never gave permission for their names and sexual histories to be printed. They suffered damages as a result in the forms of ridicule, harassment and invasion of privacy, they say.
The district disagrees, saying the students did consent to their names and comments being printed and changed their stories only when their parents got upset with what was in the newspaper.
Attempts to settle out of court came up empty, and the parties now are in Judge Susan Serko's courtroom, trying to persuade a jury to their way of thinking.
The stakes are high. The plaintiffs, who sued the school district in November 2008, notified the district they intend to seek between $16 million and $32 million in damages.
Mikaela Bates, Kevin Weeks, Madison Freedle and Whitney Higgins, all of whom since have graduated, contend their reputations were ruined as a result of the package and that they endured humiliation and harassment on and off campus after their comments were published.
Some of the girls were called "slut" and "whore" after the package of stories appeared, their attorney, Tacoma personal injury specialist Jack Connelly, said in his opening statement March 23.
"These kids got branded with a scarlet letter," Connelly told jurors. "It got to the point that they didn't want to go to school. It was incredibly humiliating, shameful, embarrassing."
What's more, district officials never should have let the plaintiffs' names appear in the newspaper alongside their sexual histories, and violated their own policies by allowing them to be published, Connelly said. He added that newspaper adviser Kevin Smyth should have known better and had the authority to stop the quotes from being published.
Connelly also accused district officials of lying to The News Tribune of Tacoma after the package generated controversy at the school and in the community.
School district officials told The News Tribune at the time that The JagWire had obtained consent from the students before printing their names and comments.
"The information that was provided by the school district to The News Tribune was not accurate," Connelly said. "It was wrong."
He said the student journalists "used" the plaintiffs to add "pizzazz" to the package of stories, which went on to win a statewide award.
District attorney Michael Patterson delivered his opening statement March 24 and stood by the district's assertions that student reporters obtained consent from the four plaintiffs before putting their names and sexual histories into the paper.
"They agreed to be quoted. They knew their names would be used," Patterson told jurors. "Nobody is claiming they were falsely interpreted, that they didn't make the statement that appeared in The JagWire."
Patterson said the evidence showed Mikaela Bates called JagWire staff before publication of the February 2008 edition to ask that her quote be changed slightly before being printed. That request was honored, he said.
Connelly's contention that the district violated its policies in allowing the article to go to press is wrong, Patterson said. At the time, student editors were solely in charge of what went into the newspaper and could print what they wanted as long as the content wasn't libelous or otherwise "unprotected expression," he said.
"The final decision-makers were the students," Patterson said. "The issue is open forum. It deals with freedom of expression under our First Amendment, which is a civil right."
That school policy since has changed, giving school principals the right to review publications before they go to print and reject objectionable content.
The district's attorney also accused Whitney Higgins of claiming she hadn't given consent so she could sue. Patterson said Higgins' "best friend" would testify that Higgins "flat out told me she was going to lie and say that she never gave consent."
The four plaintiffs are scheduled to take the stand during the trial, which is expected to last for more than two weeks.
Former JagWire reporter and Emerald Ridge High School graduate Dallas Welker, who conducted the interviews, also is scheduled to testify, as are Principal Brian Lowney, JagWire adviser Kevin Smyth, district Superintendent Tony Apostle, former state schools Superintendent Judith Billings and Michael Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center.