The Seattle Times' Opinion on "Public Forum" Student Papers


"But we say again it is a risky thing to give legal control of a high-school newspaper to students."

Seattle Times Editorial

Limited Public Forum Lawsuit Goes to Trial in Washington

The SPLC published this article concerning a trial that began last week.

Trial over school paper's printing of student sex histories begins in Wash.

From their FAQ asked by high school students page:


Q: Can a student publication be sued for libel, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement?


A: Yes, and occasionally they are. In such cases the individual reporter and the editor could be held legally responsible. Court decisions indicate that a school which does not control the content of a student publication may be protected from liability. Students need to be aware that with press freedom does come legal responsibility.


And here is their advice to student media advisors on how to shift the blame should there be trouble (emphasis added):


Let Your Students Lead
Let [your students] know you support them, but that they must be willing and able to take the leadership role should it be necessary to challenge administrative action. It's their publication. Courts have made clear that it is their legal rights — not the adviser's — that are at stake. If a fight must be fought, it must be their fight (and ideally, one that parents and other community members are willing to join). Also, from the beginning it should be made clear to school officials that their battle will be with students and parents, not you. 



So the students are unsupervised as to content, they have no legal training, and are encouraged to exercise their free speech rights. Then the advisor is to politely step aside and let them take the heat, which in the Washington case means being sued personally, along with their parents for millions of dollars. 


And it should be noted that although the school tried to say it had no responsibility because it wasn't editing content, the courts disagreed and the school is also in the lawsuit (they did attempt to throw the students under the bus, but it didn't work).