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How two other school districts escaped lawsuits
by fostering an independent student press QT 61

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Student First Amendment Rights
 Douglass v. Londonderry School District (2005) and Sisley v. Seattle School District (2011)

Douglass v. Londonderry School District (2005)

The yearbook staff at Londonderry High School in New Hampshire voted against running the photograph Blake Douglass submitted as his senior picture. The photograph showed him kneeling, a broken (open) shotgun across his shoulder, dressed in trap shooting clothing.  Shotgun shells appeared to be in his pocket. Though the student journalists rejected it as a senior picture, they did offer to include it in the community sports section.

Douglass and his father sued the school district, claiming his First Amendment rights were being violated. He also claimed the school was using “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” by refusing to run a picture of him with his shotgun. Douglass claimed the school could not “lawfully refuse to publish [the photograph] because they disapproved of the ‘message’ they think the readers will take from it.”

The federal judge disagreed. It was not the school district that rejected the photo. It was the student yearbook editors.  “The state has not, it seems, suppressed Blake’s speech. His fellow students have done so,” the judge wrote. “The First Amendment does not restrict the conduct of private citizens, nor is it violated when one private actor ‘suppresses’ the speech of another.”

Sisley v. Seattle School District (2011)

The March 2009 edition of “The Roosevelt News,” the student paper for Roosevelt High School in Seattle, included an article on a potential project that would tear down rental homes near the school and replace them with a tall building.  “Sisley Slums Cause Controversy” included this sentence: “In 15 years these [Sisley] brothers have acquired 48 housing and building maintenance code violations, and have also been accused of racist renting policies.”

Hugh Sisley sued the Seattle School District Number One for defamation, that is, making false, derogatory claims. He objected to one clause in the article, the clause that read “and have also been accused of racist renting policies.”

The Washington state superior court judge ruled against Sisley and in favor of the school district, writing “a public school student is not an agent or employee of the school district.” In addition, “the public school district is a governmental entity constitutionally prohibited from censoring or otherwise curtailing a student’s First Amendment right to free speech unless there is evidence censorship is necessary to prevent disruption of the school environment. No such evidence exists.”

The Sisleys appealed and the appeals court ruled against the Sisleys—and for the school district–simply because the Sisleys had not proved the statement in the “The Roosevelt News” was untrue.

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