Seattle school not liable for student newspaper story about landlord

WASHINGTON Public high schools are not liable for the content of student-run newspapers, a Washington state court judge ruled Friday, rejecting a Seattle landlord’s libel lawsuit.

The ruling is the first to explicitly establish liability protection at the high school level, said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center.

“High school media very rarely gets sued,” he said. “And in no case has there ever been a situation that a school district has been held liable for something their student media wrote.”

Hiestand said school districts commonly fear being held accountable for content published by student media and tend to censor in order to protect themselves from legal liability.

However, Hiestand said Friday’s ruling is a clear sign to school districts that allowing students to make editorial decisions can actually insulate the school against liability for any wrongdoing.

“This decision kind of echoes what is in the law at the college level. If you don’t give the student media the official seal of approval you won’t be held liable,” Hiestand said.

A March 2009 article in The Roosevelt News written by Roosevelt High School student Emily Shuggerman centered on the rental practices of Hugh and Drake Sisley.

Hugh is a landlord who owns several properties in the Seattle area. Drake, his brother, was also implicated in the story and named as a landlord.

The brothers sued Seattle Public Schools alleging that Shuggerman’s article defamed them and that the district is liable.

In the article Shuggerman wrote that the brothers had “been accused of racist renting policies,” according to court documents — a statement the brothers dispute.

Drake and Hugh filed two separate libel lawsuits against the school district. Hugh filed his suit in conjunction with his wife, Martha, on March 10, 2010.

Jeffrey Freimund, attorney for the school district, filed a motion for summary judgment of Hugh and Martha’s case, arguing that the student newspaper’s actions were not the district’s responsibility because students are not “agents or employees” of the district.

The motion also argued that if the school was liable for the students it still could not have censored the paper without violating the students’ First Amendment rights.

The district went further, arguing that the article’s claim was a “non-actionable opinion” and therefore not libelous.

On Friday, Judge Kimberly Prochnau dismissed Hugh and Martha’s case, granting summary judgment on every ground put forth by the district.

“As a matter of law, plaintiffs are unable to prove that, consistent with the First Amendment, the [district] should have censored the student’s speech,” the judge’s order reads.

Jeffrey Grant, attorney for Hugh and Martha, said he has not decided whether to appeal Friday’s ruling.

Drake’s separate lawsuit, joined by his wife, Antoinette, was filed in the same court March 28, 2011. The couple’s lawyer, Ray Siderius, said he is reviewing Friday’s decision but does not anticipate the ruling will affect his clients’ case.

In their lawsuit, Drake and Antoinette argue that the March 2009 article is incorrect in that it states Drake is a landlord, that he has a bad reputation among local and city officials, and that he has been accused of racist renting practices.

According to the lawsuit, Drake does not “own, manage or have anything to do with the properties described in [the] article.”

Drake and Antoinette argue that the alleged defamatory comments were “caused by negligence on the part of the faculty advisers to The Roosevelt News and by the principal.”

At Roosevelt High the student newspaper has one faculty adviser that does not edit or censor the paper. The adviser is there to advise students as they work on each issue of the News.

Hiestand said Friday’s decision might prompt school districts to reexamine the role of faculty advisers to ensure liability is not placed on the school district.

“This is a signal to liability-wary school districts that they need to rethink how they treat their student media and how they manage it,” Hiestand said.

“An adviser’s role — as long as it is limited to providing advice — should not be a problem. It is when advisers become editors and take direct responsibility over content, that is when the liability question becomes a problem.”

Freimund, the school district’s attorney, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

news, Roosevelt High School, The Roosevelt News, Washington