Fast Times at Ridge High: Four Seattle Students Sue High School Over Article Detailing Their Sex Lives

jaguarAn interesting case has been filed in Seattle where four students have sued over the disclosure of details of their sex lives in the student newspaper. Many of us are often criticizing schools for censorship of articles and punishment of free speech. This case represents the flip side of such stories, charging that the school should have exercised greater supervision of the Emerald Ridge High School newspaper, the JagWire, to prevent the invasion of their privacy and exposure to severe sexual harassment, humiliation and embarrassment.

The complaint, available here, focuses on a supposedly anonymous sex survey conducted by journalism students, where students were asked “if they had engaged in sex or if they had performed oral sex, and, if so, under what circumstances.”

The story, however, identified the four students by name as examples drawn from 600 Emerald Ridge students surveyed. In one case, the identified student discussed oral sex and says “I was 15. I was horny. It wasn’t really a relationship at that point.”

The complaint states that after the publication the “Plaintiffs were mocked, jeered and called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and subject to harassment, humiliation and embarrassment.”

This raises some interesting legal and policy questions. The subject of the article was in my view appropriate and an interesting matter for student journalists to explore. These are high school students who routinely discuss such issues, which include teenage pregnancy and teen pressure concerns. However, minors are not in the same position in waiving their privacy as are adults and it is not clear that proper waivers were secured in the case. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs said that she contacted the Jagwire staff to make sure her name would not be printed and allegedly was assured that it would not be used.

There does appear to be a breakdown in supervision in this case. Moreover, this would fall squarely in the realm of actionable “private facts” for an action for the public disclosure of private facts and potentially intrusion upon seclusion. There is also straight negligence.

Yet, my greatest concern is that officials (who have become increasingly restrictive on student journalists) will now cite this lawsuit as an excuse for preventing students from writing on controversial subjects.

For the full story, click here.

11 thoughts on “Fast Times at Ridge High: Four Seattle Students Sue High School Over Article Detailing Their Sex Lives”

  1. I’m not sure how talking about being horny educates kids about the dangers of oral sex – there’s no healthy awareness message for me there. What I do know is that parents don’t have to support a school paper that doesn’t represent the values of the community. Parents may not be forced to read the paper, but the paper represents their kids, and it is distributed to them. Last I heard, parents still had rights. Go to the school board, talk to the superintendent. I am as irate as Sally, whether she spelled it right or wrong. But, she’s not the one on trial here – it’s the poor judgement of a high school newspaper.

  2. Anonymous….
    You must be a slow reader if it took you that long to figure it out!! 🙂

    I have a very touchy keyboard

  3. WJEA – I’d like to address specific points within your comments.

    1) expectation of privacy. it matters not how the interviewees saw their own comments to student reporters. because some of those students interviewed are/were minors and because those students spoke as to personal sexual issues, the newspaper has an ethical and legal obligation not to specifically identify those students.

    2) the teacher advisor. true, he is not the editor. but as advisory, he needs to be versed and aware in current issues surrounding the publication of high school newspapers. he either is not versed, not aware or simply ignorant of his professional obligations. his acts, or lack thereof, make him legal liable for the contents of the publication – a liability which is best refered to and handled by the school district’s E/O insurance carrier.

    3) curriculum vs. school district policy. that the district may have no segment re oral sex within its curriculum is irrelevant. there is no obligation to include oral sex, or any sex, within the curriculum unless specifically required to do so by state or federal law. there is no such curriculum requirement under federal law. how does the district’s mission statement or district-wide policies address the issue?

    Sally – if you do not like what is written within any newspaper or other publication, no one is forcing you to read it. Whether you as a parent likes it or not is irrelevant.

  4. Had the been offered a confidentialty agreement, they never would have agreeed to having their real names used. And why wasn’t an alias assigned, at least, to each of the contributors to protect their privacy?

    And why weren’t they at least shown a Copy, for their review, before it was printed and shared with public?

  5. Honestly – some of these comments just go to show how out of touch with reality some parents are. To say “This is not appropriate reading material for teenagers. I would be irrate if my child came home with a newspaper like this from her highschool.” Are you really this naive? According to recent surveys published by reputable organizations – including the CDC – nearly 62% of teenagers are sexually active. READ about it? That should be the least of your concerns as a parent.

    Rather than criticize student journalists who are trying to shed light on an OVERWHELMING issue that our teens are faced with, perhaps you should use this as an opportunity to have an open and honest discussion about the content of these articles with your teens. It sounds like they could very much benefit from this.

  6. While I appreciate the fact that this case is garnering national attention (it should since it will likely decide the fate of three of Washington state’s finest high school journalism programs and publications), I’m deeply troubled by the amount of misinformation being spread. Please keep in mind that much of the reporting on this case is coming from a single source – the lawsuit. No one has heard from the Puyallup School District, adviser Kevin Smyth, the Student Press Law Center (, other student press law experts nor the student editors of the 2008 Emerald Ridge High School JagWire.
    Here are a couple of examples of misinformation:
    – The quotes from the four students suing the school district were not gathered from a survey. These four students (and others) were interviewed by the JagWire reporters. Some were interviewed more than once. For these students to claim that they were unaware that their names would be used is incredulous. Each was either 17 or 18 years old and fully capable of understanding the potential feedback that would occur from the publication of their comments. Had they been concerned at the time, each could have declined comment to the JagWire reporters.
    – Kevin Smyth is the adviser of the JagWire. He’s not the editor. Not the publisher. The adviser. His job is to advise and that’s exactly what he did. Since its inception at ERHS, the JagWire has been an “open forum” publication with all editorial decisions being made by the student editors.
    – The series of stories was done exceptionally well. In fact, this particular issue of the JagWire was chosen as the top publication in the state at the WJEA state convention – adjudicated by members of the Seattle/Tacoma area working press.
    – For the claim of invasion of privacy to be credible, one would think that these students would have wanted to refrain from drawing further attention to themselves. But that’s not what they have done. This lawsuit notwithstanding, two of the students publicly referenced and joked about the quotes in a skit performed as part of the school’s theater sports troupe.
    – Up until August of this year, the student publications in Puyallup (JagWire and the publications at Puyallup and Rogers high schools) had operated in policy and practice as “open forum” publications. This summer, however, without public comment or school board review, the superintendent enacted a highly restrictive (and potentially illegal) regulation requiring prior review.
    – The Puyallup School District’s curriculum does not address the issue of oral sex. National studies have shown that many teens don’t consider oral sex a kind of sex at all and are completely unaware of the health concerns associated with such activity. The JagWire and its editors should be commended for their reporting – not condemned.
    So, those are just a very few points that should be considered when addressing this particular case. As president of the WJEA, I am deeply concerned about the authoritarian direction that many public school officials are taking with regard to student publications. To lose these three storied programs would be terribly tragic. The WJEA and other student press organizations are strong advocates for a free and responsible student press. The JagWire, its editors and adviser have acted in that spirit. I only hope that the school officials and other adults in this case act with the same degree of professionalism.

  7. Jill,
    You are correct that the problem is the fact that they did not keep their names out of the story. I am also concerned that this case will be used as an example why schools have to be even more restrictive in dealing with school newspapers. As to the discussion why women are called sluts, I thik girls and women are incorrectly held to a higher public standard for conduct. It is a similar question when the “johns” in a prostitution raid are not named,but the prostitutes are. They are both breaking the law, but only the women are named in the papers. We have a long way to go.

  8. I don’t think these cases are analogous. The students did not object to the story being written as is the case with administrators censoring topics they don’t like. The students objected to being lied to about the use of their names. They were told it was to be anonymous and it was not. The faculty supervisor should have made certain that promise was kept, no exceptions.

    Notice also that the girls are called sluts and whores for wanting/liking/engaging in sex. Why are they sluts and whores? Perhaps the newspaper should do a story on why girls who have sex are treated with such hateful disdain.

  9. This is not appropriate reading material for teenagers. I would be irrate if my child came home with a newspaper like this from her highschool.
    Heck, it’s not even appropriate for a regular everyday newspaper.

    I don’t care about the sex details of someone’s life. If they made stupid choices and had sex or oral sex, then that’s their problem, not mine or anyone else’s

    If they wanted to talk about teens that had had sex or done sexual things and talk about how they regretted it, that’d be different. No details are needed to prove such a point either.

  10. Despite the important privacy rights at stake, I am also concernd about Kevin Smythe, the facuty sponsor of this student newspaper. Despite reviewing it prior to publication and being warned by a friend that this was not appropriate for a student publication, he allegedly ok’ed the edition. One shudders at the judgment shown by this “educator.”

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