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Story about sex in high school newspaper spurs lawsuit

By Courtney Holliday
First Amendment Center Online intern

Four current and former high school students have sued the Puyallup (Wash.) School District for unspecified monetary damages, claiming they were harassed after their names were used in a story in their school's student newspaper about their sex lives, the Associated Press reported Nov. 13.

According to a Nov. 12 report from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Emerald Ridge High School newspaper, the JagWire, published a story in February based on a survey of students’ sexual experiences. In addition to providing statistics from the survey, the story included information about oral sex, noting that there was no mention of the topic in the school district’s curriculum.

The controversial part of the story, however, was the identification of four students and their sexual histories as examples of the responses the reporters received from the 600 students surveyed.

The lawsuit alleges that publication of these testimonials led to harassment of the students, according to a Nov. 13 report from The Seattle Times.

“Plaintiffs were mocked, jeered and called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and subject to ongoing sexual harassment, humiliation and embarrassment,” the lawsuit said.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Nov. 12, the students named in the article said they did not give consent to reporters to use their names with their survey responses. The students “understood that their names would be withheld and their candid answers would be anonymous,” according to the lawsuit.

One of the student plaintiffs said in the lawsuit that she spoke with a JagWire reporter before the article’s publication to ensure that her name would not be used, and she was told it would not be, The Seattle Times said.

Given primary responsibility for the article is the journalism adviser, Kevin Smyth, who did not act to protect the students named, according to the lawsuit. Smyth said in March that only students who had provided consent were quoted in the article, according to the Nov. 17 Tacoma News Tribune. However, the lawsuit alleges he did not attempt to verify the students’ consent. The lawsuit also alleges that the reporters destroyed digital recordings confirming or denying the students’ consent.

“This is a high school journalism class that is supposed to be supervised, and the journalism instructor is letting the students do whatever they want with the paper,” said Nathan Roberts, attorney for the four students, in the Nov. 13 Seattle Times.

According to The News Tribune, Smyth received a letter of reprimand in April from Principal Brian Lowney, who wrote that Smyth displayed “lack of oversight” and “poor judgment” in naming the students in the article.

Though Lowney warned Smyth that future problems would lead to further discipline, he wrote, “You have expressed regret, have worked well with students and media in mediating the issues, and have agreed to address the decision-making process of the editorial board and your role in this process.”

The News Tribune reported that complaints from parents and members of the community instigated a district rule that requires principals to review newspapers, yearbooks, and other student publications before to their release. As a result, many advocates of journalism education have protested to the Puyallup School Board that the rule violates students’ First Amendment rights.

Attorneys for the school district have defended the newspaper, however, saying the students consented to the publication of their names and testimonies during their interviews and before publication, according to The News Tribune.

“It is an ancient legal principle that ‘no wrong is done to one who consents,’” the attorneys said in The News Tribune report.

School newspaper's sex stories now in court
After The JagWire published series on prevalence, risks of oral sex in Puyallup, Wash., high school, some students said they didn't give permission to be quoted; district says they did. 03.26.10


Bid to safeguard Wash. student press fails again

By Melanie Bengtson Bill, similar to one that died last year in state Legislature, would have protected First Amendment rights of student journalists. 02.06.08

Longtime student-media advocate still going strong

By Courtney Holliday Since 1974, Student Press Law Center has worked to ensure that high school, college journalists have legal resources necessary to fight censorship. 11.07.08

High school newspapers squelched in 2 states

Student newspapers shut down after school administrators object to editorial material. 12.23.08

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