Photo courtesy of The Western Front

On May 30, students Erasmus Baxter and Julia Furukawa and SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand held a press conference announcing they filed a lawsuit against Western Washington University for withholding the names of students found responsible for sexual misconduct.

The plaintiffs believe the university, based in Bellingham, is violating Washington’s Public Record Act, which would compel the university to release these names.
 “We’re taking on the brunt of pursuing this in court so that other student journalists don’t have to.” 
– Erasmus Baxter
Hiestand worked with the students in their fight to obtain records as they investigated if perpetrators of sexual misconduct have been allowed back on campus.The school stonewalled by redacting names and citing privacy laws that do not protect the rights of students found to be "an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense."
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Speak up about the Year of the Student Journalist!

Whether it's a coordinated campaign or a single tweet, we want to hear from you! Make sure to tag @splc on Twitter or @studentpresslawcenter on Instagram and use #StudentPressFreedom. 

This week's featured post comes from a student journalist in Washington with one of our favorite reactions to the news about the WWU lawsuit:

Q: Who can be held liable for what is published by student media?

A: Student media advisers and school officials often wonder if they can be held liable for what student publications publish. Generally, if editorial control and decisions about content are left in the students’ hands, then advisers and school officials will not be held liable for anything published.

The general principle underlying liability is that any person who should and reasonably could have prevented an injury from occurring can be held responsible for it. In the student media context, this means that anyone who wrote a story containing libel, any editor or other staff member that took part in overseeing its reporting, editing and inclusion in the publication, could be held liable. In public colleges, courts have held that the schools will not be held financially liable for what their student media publish as long as the school is not censoring or exercising some other form of content control. At public high schools where a principal insists on mandatory prior review and approval of a publication, the school is likely opening itself up to be held at least partially accountable for what the publication publishes. On the other hand, if a public high school establishes a policy that gives students press freedom and limits administrative interference, a strong argument can be made that the school should be shielded from any resulting liability.

At private high schools and colleges, the answer becomes a little murkier. But the best way for a private school to protect itself from liability is to keep school officials from interfering with content decisions made by student editors. The strongest basis for protecting the school from liability is to have a clear, written policy affirming the rights of students to make editorial decisions in exchange for the students assuming responsibility for all content.

What should next week's Ask SPLC be?

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SPLC's high school and college press freedom awards 

The submission deadline for both awards (covering stories published during the 2018-19 academic year) is June 14, 2019.
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