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Jury finds for Puyallup School District in civil suit over oral sex story in student newspaper

Post by Stacey Mulick / The News Tribune on April 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm with 27 Comments »
April 21, 2010 5:06 pm

UPDATE: A Pierce County jury this afternoon exonerated the Puyallup School District of any wrongdoing in connection with a high school newspaper that quoted four students by name in a package of stories about oral sex.

On a 10-2 vote, the jury decided the JagWire newspaper of Emerald Ridge High School was within its rights to publish the students’ names and sexual backgrounds. Because it was a civil case, only 10 votes were required to decide the case.

The 10 jurors felt the four students – who claimed their privacy was invaded – should have known when they talked to a JagWire reporter that their names and comments would be included in the newspaper.

“They believed in freedom of expression,” said attorney Michael Patterson, who represented the school district. “It was total vindication for the school district.”

Plaintiff’s attorney John Connelly said his clients were saddened by the verdict. They’d each sought between $500,000 and $1.5 million in damages.

“They’re sad, but they’re glad they brought the case,” Connelly said.

PREVIOUS POST: A Pierce County jury has found for the Puyallup School District in a civil lawsuit filed by four former students.

The students had sued the Puyallup School District after the student newspaper at Emerald Ridge High School published a series of stories on oral sex in February 2008. The students had been quoted in the package and contended they never gave permission for their names and sexual histories to be printed. They claimed they suffered damages as a result in the forms of ridicule, harassment and invasion of privacy.

During the civil suit, the school district contended the students did consent to their names and comments being printed and changed their stories only when their parents got upset with the articles.

The trial began in late March. The former students had notified the district that they intended to seek between $16 million and $32 million in damages.

Courts reporter Adam Lynn is at the courthouse and will report more in tomorrow’s News Tribune.

Leave a comment Comments → 27
  1. tacomakittie9 says:

    This was probably a terrible situation for these students, I understand, I had rumors spread about me at school too. But they should have told the writers of this paper “Hey, make sure my name isn’t mentioned” instead of waiting until it came out and get angry. They could have saved them and the school district a of trouble,

  2. sheila13 says:

    Thank you jury! This was a lawsuit simply based on parents being upset and embarrassed at finding out in a public forum that their children were engaging in sexual activities. These were articles written by kids, for kids. Should these kids have elected to have their names be attached to their comments? Probably not… But that is a decision they were prepared to live with and have the right to. These parents seeking easy cash at the expense of their children were the only source of suffering and damages!

  3. iluvshopping says:

    I agree with sheila13. Let the student newspaper do what it does. Obviously the jury believed the student journalists, who knew that they had obtained permission from each of the plaintiff students.

    It’s too bad that out of this has come changes in district policy that will always hamper current/future students’ ability to report on issues, as well as the fact that the students who claimed they were damaged now will have their names live in infamy. If they thought their privacy was invaded, it seems strange that they were willing to go on a very public stage. Now everyone knows, kids.

    This is a landmark case that supports the rights of student journalists. And the advising and administrative staff — hats off to you for allowing the students to make these decisions; this is real-life stuff, all of it. Thank you, Mr. Smyth, Mr. Lowney, the defense attorneys and countless others including the Puyallup School District. You believed in a cause and were willing to fight for it. The jury got it right!!! It’s a good day. From a grateful ER parent

  4. sickoflatepapers says:

    As a parent of one of the Jagwire staff, I can say with absolute joy, that the black cloud that has hung over our heads and the heads of the high school staff involved in this for two years is finally gone. Justice has prevailed, lies have been revealed on the stand, and we have been vindicated.
    Still, a sadness remains with me. Sadness that the parents of these kids could be so greedy and morally blind to not see the terrible example they have set for their children, children who already seem to be on their way to thinking that their parents’ behavior is ok. This makes me sad, that more and more, our society seems to be full of sue-happy, morally bankrupt people. Hey, if your kids embarrass you and you want to lash out–please–keep it in the family and don’t air it in public in the pursuit of money–you’ll only make it worse and drag their names through the mud even more! Someday, your kids might not thank you and they may look back on you with distaste and shame. That is if they haven’t already become just like you.

  5. bullman120 says:

    as a parent of one of the jagwire staff you must get comfort in the fact that your child has a future in the tabloid business. how quant. I’m sure we are all happy to see a frivolous lawsuit shot down. But I am equally bothered by the fact that children are writing and publishing this type of material at a high school. When the story first came out, I thought wheres the parents. Now i know, on the sidelines cheering.

  6. razzledazzle says:

    Yeah, for the finding. These ‘kids’ playing around with an adult activity and boasting about it need to grow up. Smart jury!!

  7. Plaintiff’s attorney John Connelly said his clients were saddened by the verdict.
    Only because they didn’t get any money!

  8. meganmthompson says:

    As a high school journalist, an editor on the Rogers High School Commoner and an adult citizen of the United States (or at least that is what I told I am at the age of 18) I can say that “bullman120″ is quite mistaking at the atmosphere of student journalism, as I am sure others are too.

    We attend national conventions every year, are advised by lawyers on press law from the Student Press Law Center, and entirely focus on acting professionals and being a real journalist. I have spent five years now as a student journalist in the Puyallup School District, three of which have been on the Commoner staff, and I have never learned more about a profession by fantastic advisers, that did go to college and major in journalism, and members in our community that are involved in our Washington Journalism Education Association. We do not take our job lightly and know very well we could be sued if we faltered in our articles.

    Now the Commoner published a controversial issue regarding teen sex in 2008 right before the release of the oral sex issue of the JagWire. We received no reprimand from any authority figure because of the way we handled the topic. It was informative, relevant to teenagers, and very well written. We sought interviews with psychiatrists and doctors just like any other publication would. The result was a few angry “sex is not an appropriate subject” letters from very conservative readers and a few “fantastic job” letters from supporters.

    That said, student journalists can handle topics that are controversial and relevant to students. As much as society doesn’t want to accept this, the fact is students are engaging in oral sex and intercourse which makes these topics completely relevant to the student body. The students needed to know the information that was printed in both the Commoner and the JagWire. Our purpose is to write for our student readers and inform them the best we can about topics, not to write for the “bullman120″s of the world and the parents.

    And as the Supreme Court said in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case, Students do not give up their rights at the school house gate.

  9. sickoflatepapers says:

    Bullman120: Please enter the 21st century and accept the fact that children these days are into everything, and probably always have been. I, for one, salute the effort the Jagwire staff put into educating–completely– the students at the school on the subject of oral sex. This is something health classes have not been able to do! Discussed in the issue were the psychological and physical ramifications of engaging in this type of behavior. Did you really read the issue? I AM on the sidelines cheering for a brave effort to educate and I go against conservative people who would prefer to keep kids in the dark about the risky behavior they exhibit. Why aren’t you cheering for that? Why aren’t you more outraged at the immoral behavior shown by the plaintiffs? I think your anger is very sadly misplaced.

  10. sickoflatepapers says:

    And cheers to you Meganmthompson.

  11. meganmthompson says:

    As to you, sickoflatepapers! Student journalists need all the support we can get! I really appreciate your advocacy for our rights in the district.

  12. Hopefully this case sets a precedence for the school district, showing that they can win in a lawsuit against student expression. After the oral sex article came out Emerald Ridge became extremely paranoid, making it difficult for clubs like mine to get show material approved.

  13. iluvshopping says:

    EricCB, you’re right; now the district needs to revisit some of their reactions to this. The jury said the district got it right — now let’s adjust policy and try to learn from this and go on.

  14. ha_tamale says:

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but this decision is actually not a “landmark” decision that will set a “precedent” for PSD, or any other school district in Washington. This decision was made by a Superior Court jury. Superior Court decisions are not binding law like decisions made at the appellate level (e.g., the Court of Appeals, and the Washington Supreme Court).

  15. bullman120 says:

    Megan sounds like a very intelligent young lady. My question is how appropriate was the story. Could it have been done in a way to accomplish their objective yet spared people the public humiliation? Why were not these things taken into consideration. I applaud you and your efforts. I am sure that you have a bright future ahead of you. My problem is with these teachers/parents who encourage but fail to supervise their children. Look how mush harm was caused because no teacher was overseeing/advising these kids.

    If wanting to hold people accountable for their actions is 20th century values, well im ok with that

  16. imaginetr says:

    I’m glad the greedy suits failed. I didn’t support the article’s use of students names regardless of consent. The subject matter was fine too (without names). I don’t fault the reporters, I fault the faculty leadership for not recognizing potential harm to the students mentioned in the article. I would support discipline of the faculty in charge. On reporting in general, “journalists” in this modern era are not concerned with being responsible or considerate of anything except getting the story. They go after it and purposefully push the envelope in order to compete and stand out. So to claim any noble endeavors in reporting relevant and meaningful content is self-serving and indulgent but shouldn’t fool anyone about the true motivation.

  17. WTH? are these teachers thinking?
    This is not hollywood..this is not the enqirer or some rag mag..
    And these are NOT adults.
    Its a school STUDENT newsletter and I am dizzy with the thought of “what next”
    Where were the responsible adults when this letter was being copied off the bathroom wall.?
    when did oral sex become appropriate content for a school newsletter?
    Ethics , guidance and accountability went out the window on this one .
    Wheather these ( …children…) agreed or not to allow there names and stories to be published In a school newsletter is completly IRRELIVANT.
    WHY ? because they are kids.
    In a day that bullying ,teasing and harrasment has pushed children of this age to commit murder in schools across the nation our teachers in our district are giving each other high fives and belly bumps?
    Pull your head out ER
    This is an EPIC FAIL.
    Not your first for sure and probably not the last.
    Try to get them through the WASL -HSPE or whatever the new name is for it this month.
    my heart goes out to the kids and the parents that had to endure this type of humiliation.
    WoW,What memories to take with you into adulthood.
    Im sorry that our system has allowed this to go unpunished

  18. Not having read the story may be of benefit to me but I must admire meganmthompson. Providing an informative and educational story on an aspect of sex in a school newspaper may not sound appropriate but I give much credit to the staff of the JagWire. Quite often parents need a reality check – kids grow up. We’re not talking Larry Flynt here and we’re not talking about what parents could be imagining. I am more than amused that parents are shocked, I might be too, but maybe they need to grow up and realize someone is doing the job they are not. Good work kids, good work jurors.

  19. steve_allison says:

    I am glad it went to court and now that some may be a little more careful about quoting people by name on sensitive issues and others may be a little more careful what they say or how they word it . I am most relieved that Mr Connelly did his thing to bring the issue to everyone’s attention and helped folks have their day in court BUT did NOT get rich at taxpayer expense while using his many skills .

  20. iluvshopping says:

    Point: It’s easy to weigh in on the situation when you’ve only read a few sentences. I’m confident that the 10 jurors who spent four weeks listening to all sides and the related testimony including the information about the adviser’s role in guiding student journalists, probably know a great deal more than either you or me. The teacher, the principal, the administration, all of them — they did their jobs as they understood them to be.

    Humiliation? Look at how much humiliation the “kids” have brought upon themselves due to their actions and their reactions. It was just a high school newspaper, but now it’s the front page of the News Tribune and the national spotlight in some circles. Poor, poor kids; while I wouldn’t wish it on them, I’m sure they’re suffering now. I would have thought their parents would have wanted to spare the kids this additional discomfort but seeing the dollar signs can tend to cloud judgment.

    I’m glad that the district and the taxpayers do not have to pay a hefty price for the plaintiff students’ conduct. The jury listened to everything and came to the decision that they believed was appropriate.

  21. Good result and thanks to the jury seeing this as it was, a money grab by immature students and their irresponsible parents. I can only wonder about the 2 jurors who refused to see the light. Thank God for the other ten.

    Now, it would be really nice if John Connelly and the parents now paid back to the school district all the defense costs the district and their insurance company paid to fight this legal blackmail. Unfortunately, state law does not allow the disctrict, or any civil defendant, to recoup the tens of thousands of dollars spent to successfully defend themselves. Connelly and the parents merely walk away unscathed and Connelly lines up another set of greedy fools to represent.

  22. iwasonthejury says:

    I was one of the ten jurors who ruled for the defense. It was a very interesting 4 weeks to say the least! The decision was made collectively as a group, following the letter of the law provided us by the judge.
    The article(s) in the paper, and yes, I did read them, were very informative, not explicit. The quotes were something the staff had used many times prior to this, so it wasn’t a new process for the staff or those being interviewed. They all knew who the reporter was and what she was doing. The issue of consent was 12-0.

  23. Riddle me this people, if you were parents of your own you would be in the exact same situation. These aren’t parents that are embarrassed these are parents that stood behind their kids because they were fighting for what was right. There was no consent just because some student walks up to them telling them they are going to be quoted in the student news paper dose not mean that there name, age, and year will also be printed right under their quote, it was not open forum either, Smyth was a teacher at Emerald Ridge High school, he was paid to teach the curriculum, he was paid to give those students grades, so you mean to tell me that if he had this all in his job inquiry that they left out the part in there saying “hey by the way, maybe if you see some sort of inappropriate content going into the news paper maybe he himself should also check”. He calls himself the “gate keeper” of the class room which means he knows and allows what goes into the newspaper. The students from the jagwire that testified are complete liars. They didn’t want to admit that they were wrong. I don’t see how these people can you lay your head on your pillow at night and have a clear conscience. Can you wake up feeling what you did was right, or dose your stomach churn because you know what you did was wrong. In the back of your head do you know the truth, or are you so convinced that what you fabricated as a lie is so right. What I don’t understand is how someone can believe something so wrong that they start to believe that wrong thing turns in to what is right and true when it’s not. Think about it maybe you will get it…….. and I am talking about one in particular you know who you are. After seeing this all go down I don’t see how this is a huge invasion of privacy, particularly because I went to school with these girls and they didn’t flaunt around telling everyone about their sex lives. I bet my life that you wouldn’t do the same. These girls were asked to answer question by their best friends so of course they felt comfortable answering. I stress this so much no one told them that their name would be in the paper, no one and you don’t just assume that the jag staff would put their name in the paper because half the time our school newspaper never had names in it, I know I read it every Friday it came out. So I say pity the ten jury members that tried so hard to be one more shoulder to lean on and, save the ones that never know that what they did brought these girls down even more. Its never was about the money, all these girls had to hear was they won, without any money attached. So if you want to bad mouth me go ahead because I know I can go to sleep at night knowing that I am right because I was in court everyday listen to the facts unlike the jury did . Take a second and think about it, put yours selves in the plaintive shoes , take three steps back you will see it…..

  24. Riddle me this people, if you were parents of your own you would be in the exact same situation. These aren’t parents that are embarrassed these are parents that stood behind their kids because they were fighting for what was right. There was no consent just because some student walks up to them telling them they are going to be quoted in the student news paper dose not mean that there name, age, and year will also be printed right under their quote, it was not open forum either, Smyth was a teacher at Emerald Ridge High school, he was paid to teach the curriculum, he was paid to give those students grades, so you mean to tell me that if he had this all in his job inquiry that they left out the part in there saying “hey by the way, maybe if you see some sort of inappropriate content going into the news paper maybe he himself should also check”. He calls himself the “gate keeper” of the class room which means he knows and allows what goes into the newspaper. The students from the jagwire that testified are complete liars. They didn’t want to admit that they were wrong. I don’t see how these people can you lay your head on your pillow at night and have a clear conscience. Can you wake up feeling what you did was right, or dose your stomach churn because you know what you did was wrong. In the back of your head do you know the truth, or are you so convinced that what you fabricated as a lie is so right. What I don’t understand is how someone can believe something so wrong that they start to believe that wrong thing turns in to what is right and true when it’s not. Think about it maybe you will get it…….. and I am talking about one in particular you know who you are. After seeing this all go down I don’t see how this is a huge invasion of privacy, particularly because I went to school with these girls and they didn’t flaunt around telling everyone about their sex lives. I bet my life that you wouldn’t do the same. These girls were asked to answer question by their best friends so of course they felt comfortable answering. I stress this so much no one told them that their name would be in the paper, no one and you don’t just assume that the jag staff would put their name in the paper because half the time our school newspaper never had names in it, I know I read it every Friday it came out. So I say pity the jury members that tried so hard to be one more shoulder to lean on and, save the ones that dont know that what they did brought these girls down even more. Its never was about the money, all these girls had to hear was they won, without any money attached. So if you want to bad mouth me go ahead because I know I can go to sleep at night knowing that I am right because I was in court everyday listen to the facts unlike the jury did . Take a second and think about it, put yours selves in the plaintive shoes , take three steps back you will see it…..

  25. iwasonthejury says:

    Riddle.

    I can sleep very well at night, because we got it right as the case was presented. As a jury, we didn’t go back to the jury room and go around the table and ask how much to give or not give the plaintiffs. If you remember, there was a quite lengthly special verdict form that had several question to be addressed, and within each question several points that ALL had to be met.The judge read it word for word after closing arguments. Each point had specific instructions from the judge with regard to the law for each point. We were not allowed to make decisions based on personal feelings, opinions, experiences, or”gut” feelings. It came down to the law as it pertains to each specific point.
    The 2 dissenting jurors only held out on negligence and whether any harm came to the students, and one on invasion of privacy. So, it was really closer to unanimous than the 10-2 vote might have you think.
    We did get it right. And as I do feel that it was very hard for all of the kids on both sides to get up on the witness stand, I think that they all learned some valuable lessons as a result of this. I know I did.

  26. High school kids – lots of ‘em – are having sex (or wishing they were)! And they have been for at least the 20 yrs since I was there. In fact, given the indulgence of the 80’s, the far out-ness of the 70’s and the free lovin of the 60’s, I’m quite sure high school kids have been having sex for at least the past 50 years. Now, finally, a student newspaper is allowed to take up the subject forthrightly, and in a manner that our so-called sex ed (or lack thereof) has thus far, failed to achieve. Props to the student journalists and faculty who made it happen.

    Meanwhile, it’s certainly regrettable that the kids who were quoted felt their confidence betrayed . . . but student journalists are kids too, and high school is a laboratory for young people to explore and screw up and grow. Suing a school district for allowing kids (the journalists ~and~ those quoted) to do just those things is just incredibly short-sighted.

    They’ll grow up, and they’ll get over it, and they’ll all be a little more cautious about what they say, and who they say it to.

  27. I’m glad that the lawsuit was not prosperous for these dumb kids indeed. Hopefully they learned something. Shame on a high school that allows such content in the high school paper and shame on any parents who would judge other parents on kid’s stupidity. What a disgrace all involved bring to our public schools.

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