Judge tosses teacher's 'choirgate' lawsuit

A District Court judge ruled Tuesday that a high school newspaper article airing parents' complaints about a Northern Nevada music teacher was accurate, truthful and based on good faith communication.

The judge tossed out the teacher's lawsuit claiming defamation and seeking more than $10,000 in damages.

His ruling ended an eight-month-long legal battle over the First Amendment rights of Lauren Mac Lean , the student who wrote the article for the Churchill County High School newspaper in Fallon.

Mac Lean reported about parents' concerns that teacher Kathy Archey was withholding student audition tapes from a state musical competition. The piece examined whether Archey, in her capacity as choir director, was able to selectively submit the tapes based on student talent. Parents dubbed the issue "choirgate."

Both the superintendent and principal approved the story for publication in January.

Archey, who declined to be interviewed for Mac Lean's story, said the article damaged her reputation. She sued the superintendent, the principal, the journalism adviser and the editor of the Lahontan Valley News -- which prints the student newspaper and also covered the issue -- for defamation after the student's piece ran.

Archey could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the dismissal of her lawsuit.

"Most high school journalists don't go through this kind of thing," said Mac Lean, who starts at the University of Nevada, Reno, later this month. "I learned so much important stuff, like triple-checking everything. … It's interesting to see how all of the little details are totally inspected by everyone to have it right completely.

"I wrote this article, and it really impacted people. It meant a lot to have people back me up."

The teachers union tried unsuccessfully to stop the issue from being published, claiming the piece was "inappropriate and disruptive to the teaching-learning environment."

Archey filed the civil lawsuit in March.

"There is not a single sentence contained in the school article which is false or known by any District Defendant to be false," wrote Judge William G. Rogers.

Jerry Ceppos, dean of UNR's Reynolds School of Journalism, advised Mac Lean while she reported the story.

"This is really a rally cry for good high school journalism," he said. "It repeatedly points out that high school newspapers can bring important issues of the administration or the school district to attention.

"It reinforces the notion that good journalism is good for the school and good journalism is good for the country."

Myke Nelsen , the high school journalism adviser named in the lawsuit, said the judge's ruling was a relief.

"For my program, it means we have a solid example now backed by a legal decision that says to be a good journalist you tell the truth, you stay fair and accurate," Nelsen said. "If you've done your job right, it will stand up to that scrutiny."

Contact Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.