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‘That’s what good student newspapers do’

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

— First Amendment

Only a tenth of a percent of Americans can correctly name all five rights listed in the First Amendment. A majority can guess freedom of speech is in the First. But only 1 percent can name the poor, neglected fifth right: “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

But a Northern Nevada judge placed the Petition Clause front and center in a ruling dismissing a teacher’s defamation lawsuit against her school’s student newspaper and other defendants.

In January, Lauren Mac Lean, a student journalist for the Churchill County High School newspaper The Flash in Fallon, wrote an article about how parents were upset that choir teacher Kathy Archey had withheld certain students’ audition tapes from a state musical competition.

The teachers union tried to block publication of the story, calling it “inappropriate and disruptive to the teaching-learning environment,” but both the superintendent and principal approved it. The Lahonton Valley News also wrote about what came to be dubbed choirgate. All were defendants.

In a strongly worded ruling Judge William Rogers found the litigation utterly without merit, writing that the motion to dismiss may not be overcome “on the gossamer threads of whimsy, speculation and conjecture.”

Among the rationale cited by the judge was Nevada’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute. That law spells out: “If an action is brought against a person based upon a good faith communication in furtherance of the right to petition: … The person against whom the action is brought may file a special motion to dismiss … ” The defendants did and the judge did.

He went on to spell out that as a school teacher the plaintiff is a public figure under Times v. Sullivan and had to show the statements about her were either untrue or made with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. He found the teacher had not shown any of the statements to be in any way untrue.

Though not a direct petition to the school trustees or administration, the newspaper accounts were clearly communications about the parents’ attempts to gain a redress of their grievances against a taxpayer-funded public employee.

“One of the many purposes of the student newspaper at CCHS is to communicate about issues of concern to school district officials, as well as to students and their families,” the judge wrote. “The article in ‘The Flash’ relayed concerns of parent advocates about the process used by Ms. Archey to determine which student auditions would be forwarded” for the state competition.

Judge Rogers concluded, “The Court finds that the Defendants have shown that this action is based on good faith communications made in furtherance of the right to petition the government; that the statements in the articles were substantially truthful or are made without knowledge of any falsehood.”

Writing in the Review-Journal a week ago, Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, lauded the judge’s ruling, the student journalism practiced at Churchill County High and the courage of the administration to allow a free flow of information.

“That’s what good student newspapers in high school and college do: They point out to administrators, parents, students and others whether problems exist in the school,” Ceppos wrote. “Of course, they have to do it accurately. In this case, the judge used the word ‘truthful,’ or variants of it, again and again to describe the story. In fact, if I were author Lauren Mac Lean, I would put this sentence in big type on my resume: ‘There is not a single sentence contained in the school article which is false or known by any … defendant to be false.’ (Lauren will be a freshman journalism major at UNR beginning this week.)”

The concept of petitioning for redress of grievances is embodied not only in the Magna Carta and the First Amendment but also in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

A savvy judge prevented injury in this case.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

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