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Sisley v. Seattle School District No. 1 Case summary and analysis.

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1 Sisley v. Seattle School District No. 1 Case summary and analysis

2 What the courts said u On July 22, 2011, Kimberly Prochnau, a Washington state King County Superior Court judge, ruled public high schools are not liable for the content of student-run newspapers. In doing so, Prochnau rejected a Seattle landlords libel lawsuit. u Although this is a state court ruling, not a federal one, even rulings at a lower level often provide precedence to help judges in upper level courts make decisions. Washington is in the Ninth Federal Circuit District, which also includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northern Mariana Islands and Oregon.

3 What it means u Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center, said in an SPLC news release that this ruling is the first to explicitly establish liability protection at the high school level. High school media very rarely get 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. uThe 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. Mike Heistand

4 What it means u This ruling makes clear that schools cant use concerns about liability as a justification for censorship. The best way a school can protect itself from lawsuits is to leave content decisions to students. Mark Goodman, professor and Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University

5 Case background In March 2010, Hugh Sisley and his wife, Martha, sued the school district In over an article in the March 2009 The Roosevelt News, Roosevelt High Schools newspaper, asserting Hugh and his brother Drake had been accused of racist renting policies. The brothers filed separate suits against the school district. Both claimed they had been defamed, and they argued the Roosevelt faculty had failed to properly supervise the students on the newspaper staff. Hugh said the paper had defamed him by calling him a slum lord who rents crack shacks.

6 u In dismissing Hugh and Martha Sisleys suit, Judge Prochnau said, As a matter of law, plaintiffs are unable to prove that, consistent with the First Amendment, the defendant Seattle School District should have censored the students speech. u Judge Prochnau also said, according to the SPLC release, that if the school was liable for the students it still could not have censored the paper without violating the students First Amendment rights.

7 The schools argument u According to the SPLC, Jeffrey Freimund, attorney for the school district, argued that the student newspapers actions were not the districts responsibility because students are not agents or employees of the state. He also argued that the articles assertions about the Sisleys were non- actionable opinion and therefore were not libelous. u Freimunds arguments convinced the judge to rule for the district on all counts.

8 What the Court found u The court ruled that: The school district was not vicariously liable for the students allegedly defamatory statement that the plaintiffs were accused of racist renting policies. The plaintiffs did not prove consistent with the First Amendment that the district should have censored the reporters speech. The article was a non-actionable opinion that is not defamatory as a matter of law.

9 What the Court found Plaintiffs are unable to prove the statement that Hugh and Drake Sisley had been accused of racist policies is false. Plaintiffs are unable to prove the defendant was at fault for the students speech or at best is negligent. Plaintiffs are unable to prove the students statement caused damage to their reputation.

10 Why does this case matter? u This is a signal to liability-wary school districts, Heistand said in the SPLC release, that they need to rethink how they treat their student media and how to manage it. An advisers roleas long as it is limited to providing adviceshould not be a problem. It is when advisers become editors and take responsibility over content, that is when the liability question becomes a problem. u Fern Valentine, a retired adviser from Washington, said part of the advisers role should be to help the student editors establish a relationship with the principal to keep him or her informed as to the steps the students have taken to make sure their reporting is responsible.

11 How should student newspapers respond? Consider discussing these questions with your newspaper staff: What is our normal practice for keeping the administration informed in a professional and open way about our work? Does this approach fit the guidelines of this case? How can we establish better communication with our administration without opening the door to prior review? How does the staff feel about the advisers level of involvement? How can we create a policy that describes the role of the adviser in a way consistent with this ruling?

12 The future of the case u The SPLC said in its release that Drake Sisleys separate lawsuit, which he filed with his wife Antoinette, March 10, 2011, is being reviewed by their lawyer, Ray Siderius. u Siderius does not anticipate the ruling against Hugh Sisley will affect his clients case. According to Drake, he does not own, manage or have anything to do with the properties described in [the] article. He does, however own similar properties elsewhere in the area. u Drake and Antoinette are also arguing that the alleged defamatory comments were caused by negligence on the part of the faculty adviser to The Roosevelt News and by the principal.

13 The future of the case u In another press release on Sept. 2, 2011, the SPLC announced that Hugh and Martha Sisley were going to appeal the lower courts decision to the Washington Court of Appeals. u This time, the SPLC said that Jeffrey Gray, the couples lawyer, plans to again argue that the article was defamatory, and because the newspaper is part of class curriculum, the school district should be accountable for the publications content.

14 Tips for advisers u This case provides advisers an opportunity to discuss with their administrators reasons why it is important to allow students to make content decisions and to present them with valid reasons why prior review is undesirable. u John Bowen, the Student Press Rights Commission chair for the Journalism Education Association, suggests advisers might ask the following questions of those who want to use prior review.

15 Questions to ask about prior review: How does prior review help students learn and advisers practice journalism? What is the purpose of the review? To prevent misinformation? To protect the schools image? To enhance student learning? To provide accurate information to the schools communities (including voters)? Which of these reasons are educationally valid, fitting within Hazelwoods framework?

16 Questions to ask about prior review: What happens after review? Deletion of all or part of a story? If deletion, or telling students to remove copy or change it, how does this affect the truthful and accurate reporting a schools community should expect from its media? Would this review be better carried out by students trained in journalism? What skills (and motives) do administrators bring to the review? How does review affect the schools curriculum, especially student learning? Does review provide the lessons the curriculum intends?

17 Questions about prior review: How does administrator review of student work affect the schools liability? Does administrative or faculty review, since the reviewers are agents of the state, reflect our democratic traditions and heritage? Does review change how community members perceive the truth? Isnt there a better way? JEA understands not all advisers are permitted to practice without prior review and restraint. It is sometimes hard to fight it, but maybe by showing the educational weaknesses and lack of logic behind prior review, administrators will discover there is a better way.

18 Understanding prior review u Bowen also suggests the following statements might help administrators and students in understanding prior review and its inherent problems. 1. Prior review is defined by JEA and the Center for Scholastic Journalism, among others, as: an expectation that student journalists or publication/media advisers will allow a school administrator or his/her representa-tive to read stories or media content, especially content deemed controversial, before publication or broadcast.

19 Understanding prior review 2. No court decision mandates prior review. Hazelwood allows it, but it does not mandate it. Tinker does not address the issue. 3. It is not illegal in most circuits to have prior review. However, no court endorses it or encourages it for educational reasons. 4. This makes prior review an educational issue, and most scholastic journalism education and critique services have stated it has no legitimate pedagogical value.

20 Understanding prior review 5. Historically and commonly, prior review serves only to lead to prior restraint and censorship. Additionally, schools practicing prior review face increased legal liability for content control. 6. No national or regional scholastic journalism organization accepts or approves or prior review as an educational tool. Most, in fact, have statements against its use with scholastic media.

21 Understanding prior review 7. Prior review of scholastic media is not the norm in high schools across the country. Prior review increases the likelihood of self-censorship and the negative outcomes that creates. 8. Where it does exist, however, studies have shown those student media with prior review generally do less well in contests and national evaluations and provide less of an overall valid learning experience than do media with students making final content decisions without review.

22 Understanding prior review 9. Equating prior review by an editor of commercial media with review of student media by an administrator or administrative appointee confuses non-parallel functions. They are not the same actions because school officials, including the adviser, are agents of the state and editors and publishers of commercial media are not. 10. Most major scholastic journalism associations agree that having student media advisers review student work, but not make decisions or tell students what they can and cannot do, is not prior review as defined here.

23 The benefits of a free student press u Once advisers and administrators recognize the importance of allowing students to make content decisions without prior review, it is likely the publication will start receiving respect from its readers. u The New York Times in its The Learning Network featured the journalism program at Palo Alto High School in California. Esther Wojcicki, the journalism adviser there talked about why more than 500 students out of a student body of 1,800 are involved in journalism.

24 The benefits of a free student press u The main attraction, she said, is freedom freedom to write about issues of importance to them. The program honors their First Amendment rights. They all want to be independent and in charge of their own lives. Journalism classes give them that opportunity. u Equally important to freedom for journalism students, Wojcicki said, is respect. Students, like adults, know when they are respected. Student journalists are treated with respect on a daily basisas individuals,

25 The benefits of a free student press as collaborators, as researchers, as writers. The No. 1 way I show them respect is by honoring their First Amendment rights. u The third pillar, she said, is high expectations. The adults in charge expect students to measure up to the high expectations that the program has established.

26 The benefits of a free student press u Freedom, respect and trust, and high expectations, according to Wojcicki, are the ingredients of a thriving learning environment, and they are inherent in school journalism programs. u When administrators and advisers trust their students to make wise content decisions and when judges like Prochnau make rulings that hold districts are not liable when allowing students to make those wise decisions, journalism programs in all schools will become thriving learning environments.

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