Good student work makes a difference
Student conduct in preparing controversial coverage spurred an attorney to change his mind and say he will work for a bill that protects both student journalists and their schools.
Don Austin, of a law firm that currently represents Puyallup, Washington, schools and was their counsel in the recent case involving Jagwire’s coverage of oral sex, said he would work for state legislation to guarantee student expression and still protect school systems, something he said he once opposed because he did not feel it gave schools enough immunity from lawsuits.
He said the cost of defending the lawsuit, nearly $250,000, the fact the jury found no invasion of privacy and no negligence on the part of the school system with students making content decisions, helped him see he should involve administrators in creating bulletproof immunity for schools – while still protecting students’ rights.
At one time, he said he did not believe students could successfully exercise control of publications.
“The kids convinced me,” he said of why his views had changed.
Austin said as part of the pre-trial briefings for the recent Jagwire case, he interviewed both adviser Kevin Smyth and his students.
“I went through and methodically evaluated his program,” Austin said. “I was impressed with the approach he and his students took” in regard to the process of reporting the oral sex stories. “Students acted as adults to do what they did.”
Austin said he wanted to “avoid future litigation” by working with school authorities and student expression supporters. He said those who have supported student free expression should know there is now a “different audience” to help work on this legislation.
The goal, he said, is to protect all parties.
Kathy Schrier, WJEA executive director, said Austin’s testimony favoring such legislation would be a huge help in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said she would like to see changes in language to protect all parties.
“Don Austin spoke against legislation last time,” First Amendment advocate and former Auburn High adviser Fern Valentine said, “but now realizes that is is the answer for both the students and school districts.”
Valentine said legislators will need to hear from school attorneys who support the legislation and can testify that a strong state law will not only insure students learn the most possible in their journalism classes but will also protect school districts from the expense of possible litigation.
WJEA president Vince DeMiero said he believes Austin is a convert.
“I truly believe if we nurture this relationship that it will be beneficial to both parties,” DeMiero said. “He’s busy, but he’s the first lawyer outside of the SPLC who I really think understands what we’re talking about. He’s incredibly focused and very intelligent. So, to have him on our side would be huge.”
Until legislation is again proposed, students in the Puyallup district and others around the state continue to fight against prior review and restraint. Check out information about the Puyallup student efforts, and about a new policy based on NEOLA standards at Seaholm High School. The NEOLA site, in a Webinar, talks about all four policy options referred to in the Seaholm article.