Swimming pools, movie stars ... and censorship

L.A. school sued after student newspaper publishes name of student who was harassed

CALIFORNIA ' In the 2001 film 'Ali,' Lee Caplin produced the story of one of the greatest fighters to step into a boxing ring.

In April, Caplin began a fight of his own against one of Los Angeles' most exclusive private schools — Harvard-Westlake School.

Caplin and his wife Gita filed a complaint in June in the Los Angeles Superior Court against the Hollywood school, the adviser of its student newspaper and several of its students for a violation of their son's civil rights, negligence and public disclosure of private facts, among other claims. The original suit, filed in April, did not name the students in the case.

The suit claims students at the school posted threatening messages on a Web site that promoted the younger Caplin's music career, between September and October 2004. The messages ranged from derogatory comments to death threats, but the district attorney did not file charges against the students after a police investigation found the students did not intend to harm the minor Caplin, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

The claim of public disclosure of private facts is based on a Nov. 10, 2004, article printed by the student-produced Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, 'Students' online comments lead to FBI investigation.' The article named the minor Caplin and the school that he transferred to after the Web comments were posted.

Mark Lane, the lawyer representing the Caplins, attacked the decision to name the Caplins' son and his location in the article.

'They printed the name of a 15-year-old victim, something which the supermarket tabloids that have somewhat questionable ethics would never ever think of doing,' Lane said. 'They did this to their own student and at the same time they declined in that article to print the names of any of the students whose names they had who were involved in the hate crimes.'

Tom Hudnut, Harvard-Westlake headmaster, said the claim against the newspaper is baseless because the information had already been printed in an interview with Lee Caplin and his son in the Monterey County Herald on Oct. 24, 2004.

The Herald article, 'With Lee Caplin, it's all about family,' mentions the minor Caplin's first name as well as the northern California town in which he resided and the school he attended there 'after a brief Hollywood hiatus.'

Lane said the interview was conducted before the threats had been made. The Los Angeles Daily News, however, cited the posted threats dating as early as Sept. 13, 2004.

Hudnut said the dispute should not be heard in court because of an arbitration clause in the enrollment agreement between students' parents and the school.

'[The clause says] any disputes arising out of a student's enrollment at the school will be the subject of binding arbitration,' he said.

Lane said he did not believe the arbitration applied to this case and called the request an 'effort by the school, again, to maintain its elite status by distancing itself from the ordinary people of Los Angeles who would decide what's right and what's wrong.'

The judge ruled to continue the case as a civil action on July 12, according to a spokesman for the school. However, because one of the defendants filed papers to disqualify the judge, a process allowed in California, the motion for arbitration could be heard again if the case is handed to a new judge.

Hudnut said he stands by the Chronicle's adviser, Kathleen Neumeyer, and its staff.

'I would hope [Neumeyer] would be exonerated of any wrongdoing in the case,' he said. 'I would hope the First Amendment rights of the students would be upheld.'

Fall 2005, reports