Jury: School liable for paper


Former Calif. teacher wins $4.35 million in harassment claim





CALIFORNIA — Allowing student free speech may have come at a high price for the Los Angeles Unified School District, after a superior court jury in March handed down a decision that — if not challenged — could set a dangerous precedent for cases involving student journalists.

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A jury awarded former Palisades High School teacher Janis Adams $4.35 million in damages when she took the school district to court over an underground newspaper that she claims the school did little to stop after it ridiculed and criticized her. Over the course of three months and 10 issues of the paper in 2000, student publishers of the Occasional Blow Job attacked Adams, making her the butt of jokes, calling her a porn star and superimposing her head on a photo of a nude model.

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The students said the O.B.J., which offended teachers and administrators because of its crude subject matter and profanity, began as a prank and was meant to be pure satire.

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Adams' complaints about the O.B.J. led the administration to ban its distribution in Palisades and to suspend and transfer five of its publishers to other schools in March 2000. Six other students were also suspended, but all were allowed to graduate.

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In June 2000 a federal judge ruled that one of the students, Jeremy Meyer, could not be suspended or transferred for his role in the O.B.J., which amounted to an e-mail he sent to the editors without expecting it to be published. Meyer's letter, which questioned student suspensions, appeared in the same edition as an article that criticized Adams, but did not mention the names of any teacher or administrator at the school.

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About 300 Palisades students staged a rally protesting the suspensions and parents criticized the administration for coming down on the students with "an iron fist."

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Despite the punishments, Adams sued the school district for harassment.

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The jury on March 8 awarded Adams $3.25 million for emotional distress and $1.1 million for lost earnings while on leave after the incidents in 2000.

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"We feel we did everything possible to protect Mrs. Adams, and we took action against the students," said Hal Kwalwasser, legal counsel for the school district. "Mrs. Adams now takes the attitude we did nothing when, in fact, we did several things that were opposed by countervailing forces, including students and the American Civil Liberties Union."

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Kwalwasser said the district plans to appeal, especially after Gloria Allred, Adams' lawyer, said on national television that the school had a duty as an employer to curb harassment.

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"I've got to say I'm not condoning these particular kids and what they did, and quite frankly I wish I could have stopped it, you know relative to its disruption, its negative effects on the campus," Kwalwasser said. "But it's very different if [schools operate] in the context of the First Amendment, or if [they operate] with the assumption that [they] don't have any obligation to abide by the First Amendment."

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The decision in the appeal would likely set a legal precedent that would clarify conflicts between student free speech and teacher harassment issues, he said.

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Case:

Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist., No. BC235667 (Calif. Super. Ct. Los Angeles Cty. March 8, 2002)


reports, Spring 2002