Friday we discussed the First Amendment and the rights it provides. One such right is the right to petition the government.
Recently, student members of the Churchill County High School newspaper, The Flash, in Fallon, Nev., “wrote an article about how parents were upset that choir teacher Kathy Archey had withheld certain students’ audition tapes from a state musical competition,” according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal article.
The local teachers’ union filed a libel lawsuit in an attempt to prevent the student from publishing the story.
The principal and the superintendent at the school didn’t try to stop it from going to press. Only the teachers’ union did.
Tuesday a Nevada judge ruled on the case and dismissed it. “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,'” LVRJ reported.
This is obviously good for student journalists everywhere, but I want to share it with you because of the right that was violated. Here is an excerpt from the article that spells it out specifically:
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.”
Like I was saying on Friday, the First Amendment has immense power. As journalists, we need to understand that power and use it properly, just as these students did.
Read the two articles I have linked to.
Then, in the comments, let me know what you think and what you would have done if you were in the same position as the student journalists.
Would you have covered the story at all? If so, would you have continued to fight to have it published even when threatened with a lawsuit? Do you feel the students were in the right, or was the teacher right? What do you think of the anti-SLAPP law?