Victory for a School and its Students: Lack of Censorship Prevents Libel Suit Against School District

July 27, 2011

In a tremendous victory for the First Amendment rights of high school journalists, the Student Press Law Center reports that a Washington state court judge has ruled that public high schools are not liable for the content of student-run newspapers.

In March 2009, students writing for The Roosevelt News, a student-run publication at Roosevelt High School, published a piece suggesting that a Seattle landlord had been accused of "racist renting policies." Notably, the school was already aware of, and sensitive to, the students’ First Amendment rights: the paper has an advisor, who merely advises, and takes no editorial or censorship role.

The landlord then filed a libel lawsuit against the school, arguing that the students were agents of the school, and therefore that the school should have censored the alleged libel. Impressively, the school argued back that even if the school was liable for its students, they still could not have censored the paper due to the students’ First Amendment rights.

The judge would have none of the landlord’s arguments and granted summary judgment in favor of the school. But the judge didn’t stop at finding that the articles did not contain actionable libel. She went even further, ruling that the landlord had not proven that the school could have censored the students without violating their First Amendment rights, seemingly because the school exercised no editorial power.

This implies a position consistent with one that FIRE has advocated for student-run media in higher education: A school that exercises editorial control over, and censors, a student-run publication has implicitly taken responsibility for its content, and endowed it with the imprimatur of the school, leaving the school susceptible to lawsuits such as this one. As a result, schools are likely to exercise even more editorial control, and censor even more content, eventually reducing student-run media to an array of fluff pieces addressing far fewer controversial matters of importance. What, then, becomes the point of these publications, when the marketplace of ideas is restricted and journalistic integrity is compromised? This is an especially abhorrent outcome in the educational context, where the marketplace of ideas should be the strongest, and the values of journalistic integrity imbued.

Schools are left with two options: Censor their students and expose themselves to liability, or harken to the principles of the First Amendment, allow independent student media to exercise editorial control over its content, and, in the process, be absolved from legal responsibility for what the students say. The correct choice seems obvious: Better, clearly, to leave student-run publications to answer for themselves when it comes to their content. Hopefully, decisions like this one will provide the incentive for schools to make that choice.