Students claim softball suit censorship
Superintendent says student newspaper is not a forum for free speech, students argue it is
NEBRASKA — At North Platte High School, staff members of the student newspaper have written editorials about a lawsuit against the school district despite what they say was a gag order on the story.
Michael Shearer, a reporter for the Bulldogger, wrote an editorial in the October 23 issue of the paper criticizing the administration for prohibiting discussion about a 1995 sexual discrimination lawsuit and its settlement. Two other students wrote an editorial on the lawsuit in September.
The legal battle began in April of 1995, when parents of seven North Platte students filed a Title IX sexual discrimination lawsuit against the North Platte Public School District. The plaintiffs alleged that the school discriminated against the female students by not providing them with the same athletic opportunities it provided male students.
The plaintiffs called upon the school to do a number of things, among them: add girls varsity softball to North Platte’s fall athletic program, provide for the same size girls and boys locker rooms, and pay the plaintiffs $75,000 in attorneys’ fees.
In April of 1996, before the suit went to trial, the plaintiffs and the school agreed on a settlement, called a consent decree, that the school board approved by a vote of 4-2. Also in April, students said the school district’s superintendent applied a stipulation of the settlement to the student newspaper.
A section of the consent decree, which was signed by both parties, stated that “the parties to this action have agreed not to discuss this action or this Consent Decree with the Nebraska media…”
Superintendent Chris Richardson said this section was designed to prevent the school from striking back at the plaintiffs for bringing the lawsuit. He said that because the plaintiffs “were high school students and their parents, there was concern that they would be verbally…retaliated against, because they pressed to have a girls’ softball team.”
Richardson, citing a school district attorney, said the parties to the action included the Bulldogger because the newspaper was not an independent forum for ideas, but a part of the school. Richardson said that “because the Bulldogger is school-sponsored…if it prints anything that attacks the plaintiffs, the school is responsible.” Shearer and Bulldogger co-editor Heather Kouba said they were told by Richardson in April that they would not be allowed to write about the terms of the settlement or about the lawsuit itself.
“We really wanted to write about it” said Kouba.
“I believe it is a violation [of the First Amendment] because I believe we should be able to write about what we want to” she said.
The subject was of enough interest to Bulldogger writers Ryan Hunter and Kyle Shepherd to write an editorial. Soon after classes resumed in the fall, Hunter said, the editorial was published. Hunter said the pieces focused on a request by the plaintiffs’ to mandate that the school add a junior varsity softball team to its athletics program. The story criticized the plaintiffs for seeking the mandate, calling the litigation “silly little lawsuits” and saying “If you whine and complain enough and threaten people with lawsuits, you can get anything you want.”
Attorney Kristen M. Galles, who represented the plaintiffs, said no gag was ordered on the paper. “Nobody told the student newspaper they couldn’t write about this, anybody who [says] different is lying” she said. Galles said a note was sent by Richardson to the newspaper’s adviser, Dennis Burkle, telling him to confirm facts before printing anything. “We never asked to block the newspaper, nor has the superintendent [done so]” Galles said.
Galles said that the girls involved in the suit were retaliated against, not only in the hallways, but in the Bulldogger as well. She said that the articles about the lawsuit were “untrue and vicious,” that the students who wrote them did not attend the hearing they reported, and that neither the girls nor their lawyers were ever interviewed.
Galles said the paper’s adviser was to blame. She said Burkle spoke ill of Title IX during class, and encouraged students to use a “fan phone” to call the local newspaper and voice their opinions about the plaintiffs.
Burkle refused to comment, saying that he had been prohibited from discussing the issue by the administration.
Richardson said that with regard to the Bulldogger, no further action will be taken unless the plaintiffs appeal to a court.
reports, Winter 1996-97