An 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.
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