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Hazelwood’s costs: Open forum status helps win court case,
then stripped, not returned

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By Kevin Smyth
Hazelwood stories: When I joined JagWire in September 2007 as a 51-year old adviser with no advising background, and limited experience as a student journalist, I had no idea I’d become a poster boy for “things that can go wrong your first year as adviser.” It’s been a difficult story, one that’s not finished, but I have hope better days are ahead.

25 years of Hazelwood art

In 2007, JagWire was an award-winning newsmagazine, attracting knowledgeable, talented writers.  They took on some important edgy topics including pornography and student gambling.  Considered an open forum for student expression under the rules enumerated in the Hazelwood decision, JagWire was entirely directed by students, which occasionally resulted in disagreements with Principal Brian Lowney.  But it also paid off with state and national awards.

When I took over in 2007 I had a staff that was large, experienced, and led by a student editorial board that was enthusiastic and knew a lot more about running the paper than I did. In January 2008 JagWire proceeded with plans for an issue on oral sex.  It was a serious focus topic with articles on student attitudes, student health, and district health education related to this topic.

It also included student interviews that detailed their experiences, and, with their permission, named names.  Needless to say, JagWire 8.5 provoked considerable controversy.  It won a best of show award from the Washington Journalism Education Association for 2008.

It won two additional prizes, though much less desirable.  In the spring of 2008 the Puyallup School District was sued for invasion of privacy, negligence, and intentional infliction of harm relating to the publication of student names.  The following September the school district informed us we lost our open forum status.  JagWire and the other high school newspapers in our district would be subject to prior review and prior restraint.

Since the fall of 2008, JagWire  struggled with the loss of our forum status and the independence it insured.  Some of the problems were logistical.  How could we meet our deadlines while insuring Mr. Lowney approved our work?  Others were far more substantial.

During the 2009-10 school year it was as if the paper was reviewed by the lawyers representing the district.  Our case was headed for trial in the spring, and JagWire was enveloped in an aura of tension and anxiety.  Our issue on censorship in the fall was confiscated with a resulting loss of ad revenue.

Some of my students’ best work ever was penciled out for fear it was too controversial.  Meetings with an increasingly uncomfortable principal ended in tears and frustration. Protests and appeals resulted in phone calls to lawyers.  This was not the way to run a newspaper.

In the years that followed, it was as though JagWire lost its heart.  Each year the paper produced some fine student journalists.  We did eight issues per year.  We traveled to state and national conventions.

My kids produced fine work and we won our fair share of prizes in write off competitions. Though I continued to promote the view JagWire was their forum and I promised to support them any way I could, the paper lost its edge.  Students questioned taking on controversial or cutting edge issues when their work could simply be eliminated.

When Mr. Lowney, never an enthusiastic enforcer, lamented that he missed the edginess of the old days, I responded morosely, “They’ve been trained.”

In the spring of 2010 the JagWire case went to trial.

In a 10-2 verdict the jury found in favor of our paper and my students.  One of the chief defenses used by our legal team was that our paper was run as an open forum, with students accepting the responsibility for what they wrote.  The court determined JagWire was a limited public forum.

When the case was appealed to Washington Court of Appeals Division II, the appellate justices affirmed this finding.  Plaintiffs’ counsel, contending that the “open forum” is a unicorn, a kind of myth that does not protect student press rights filed its petition with the Washington State Supreme Court in September 2012 to overturn the unanimous appellate ruling. (Ed. note: The Washington State Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal)

In the fall of 2012 I am encouraged by my delightful staff and talented editor- in-chief.  There are rumors afoot there is interest in several controversial topics relevant to school climate here at Emerald Ridge High School.

We have a new district superintendent.  There is discussion of taking the paper online beginning with a blog.  Despite the district’s legal success and a new leader, it isn’t clear the restoration of our forum status is on the horizon.

 

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