Calif. judge voids damages

School wins new trial in case vs. former Palisades teacher

CALIFORNIA ' The $4.35 million in damages awarded to a former Palisades Charter High School teacher for a sexual harassment claim against the district were simply too high, a state superior court judge ruled June 7.

In a decision that recognizes student free-expression rights, Judge Kenneth Freeman threw out the verdict against the Los Angeles Unified School District that resulted from comments published in an underground newspaper distributed on campus. Freeman granted the district's motion for a new trial, citing prejudicial jury instructions and improper evidence.

The case went to court after Janis Adams alleged that students had sexually harassed her in an issue of the Occasional Blow Job. After the paper jokingly suggested that Adams was a porn star and superimposed her head on a photo of a nude model, the administration banned the publication's distribution and suspended and transferred five of its publishers.

In another move that bordered on censorship under California's student free-expression laws, six other students were also suspended for the satirical publication. A 300-student protest ensued, criticizing the administration for coming down on the students with 'an iron fist.'

Although Adams never pursued a libel claim against the students, she sued the district for failing to take immediate corrective action to address the students' conduct.

A jury in March awarded Adams $1.1 million on compensatory damages and $3.25 in damages for emotional distress.

In June 7 post-trial motions, Freeman did not vacate the jury's verdict but did grant the district's motion for a new trial. He cited errors in the law, recognizing 'substantial differences between school districts and other employers.'

'[P]ublic schools cannot, by reason of various and significant constitutional and due process limitations, exercise the level and nature of control over student conduct that private employers can exercise over adult employees,' the judge wrote.

In this context, he ruled that schools must retain their status as a marketplace of ideas. The judge concluded that school districts cannot be held to the same standards of liability under California's anti-harassment statute as private employers.

Hal Kwalwasser, general counsel for the district, said the case has the potential to set a legal precedent for conflicts between student free expression and teacher harassment issues.

'Schools are places of learning, not litigation,' he said in a press release.

No new trial date has been set.

Case: Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist., No. BC-235667 (Super. Ct. Los Angeles, June 7, 2002)

Fall 2002, reports