Students file lawsuit over confiscated newspapers

CLEVELAND (AP) - Student editors at a high school newspaper filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing their school district of violating their First Amendment rights by confiscating an entire edition of the publication.

The four Wooster High School students are asking U.S. District Court to issue a temporary restraining order which would prevent the district from what the students describe as interference with their right to freedom of speech.

Last month, the district confiscated 4,500 copies of the biweekly paper on the advice of lawyers who said the publication contained inaccuracies and was potentially libelous.

Student editors said the copies of The Wooster Blade were seized because the newspaper contained a story saying athletes and the daughter of a school board member consumed alcohol at a party in November.

The school's principal, James Jackson, said a teacher told him about a possible confidentiality problem related to a story about the party.

Jackson said federal law forbids identifying students who face disciplinary action unless their parents allow the students' names to be listed. He said violating privacy rights could leave the school vulnerable to lawsuits.

At least two students said they were misquoted in statements that "attributed to them acts of misconduct and potentially acts of criminal behavior," school Superintendent David Estrop said.

Students at the paper stood by their reporting.

The school district's policy is for students to make all final decisions on editorial content in the newspaper.

The policy says that freedom does not extend to material that is obscene or defamatory or would disrupt school activities. A faculty adviser reviews the newspaper before publication to screen for that type of content.

Estrop said the newspaper's adviser was unable to review the Dec. 20 issue before its deadline because she had been called away on a family matter.

The district has offered the students the chance to republish the issue with a version of the story that does not contain what school officials believe to be legally troubling information.

The student editors' lawsuit requests damages and asks the court to prevent the district from carrying out discipline until further court action is taken.

Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, in Arlington, Va., said he reviewed the reporting at the student editors' request and saw nothing in the story that violated libel laws.

Whether school administrators can insist on prior review of a students' publication has been an issue in high school journalism since 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled limits can be set on the free-press rights of high school students.

The case, Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, concerned students at a suburban St. Louis high school who were prevented by their principal from publishing certain stories.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)