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Seattle landlord claims district published libelous news story

August 11, 2010

WASHINGTON -- A Seattle couple has filed a libel lawsuit against the Seattle School District over a student newspaper story.

Hugh and Martha Sisley claim in their lawsuit that The Roosevelt News at Roosevelt High School "published a false and libelous statement about Hugh Sisley."

The suit concerns a statement in a May 2009 story about a neighborhood association meeting in which there was a discussion of rezoning the Sisleys' property near Roosevelt High, said Jeffrey Freimund, the school district's attorney. The story said Hugh Sisley had been accused of racist renting practices, Freimund said.

The Sisleys' attorney, Jeffrey Grant of the Seattle law firm Skellenger Bender, did not return multiple calls for comment.

The Sisleys ask for a retraction and written apology, as well as attorneys' fees and unspecified damages, according to the complaint.

Freimund said the case, which was filed in King County Superior Court in March, is in its early stages, but he feels confident about the school district's position.

"Truth is a defense to defamation and [the student journalist] was just accurately reporting a prior accusation made by somebody else," he said. "And that's not a basis for claiming damages."

Freimund cited several other newspapers' stories about Keith Gilbert, a former property manager for the Sisleys.

Gilbert is a founder of the Socialist Nationalist Aryan People's Party and has been convicted of several race-related crimes, according to a February 2005 story in the Seattle Times.

"They're going to have a hard row to hoe of saying that their reputation has been blemished given the state of their reputation in the community," he said.

The school district will also argue that the district is not liable for content published in The Roosevelt News, Freimund said.

"There's a significant question there about whether the Seattle School District can be sued for a students' exercise of a First Amendment right in speaking out in a school publication," he said.

By Josh Moore, SPLC staff writer

© 2010 Student Press Law Center

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