Everett schools settle with student editors

EVERETT — Former Everett High School student editors and the Everett School District have reached an out-of-court settlement in what has been described as a First Amendment case over the publication of the Kodak, the student newspaper.

The district’s board informally approved the settlement Wednesday night, and lawyers have signed an agreement. Both sides are claiming victory.

Mitch Cogdill, an Everett lawyer who represented the two student editors, said the young journalists got what they wanted school administration review of material prior to publication but “not subject to (administration) approval.”

Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston were Kodak editors in 2005. They have moved on with their lives and are now attending college. Lueneburg on Thursday said she’s satisfied.

“I feel like this pretty much gets us exactly what we wanted,” Lueneburg said. “I think we have achieved everything and this is a victory for us.”

Michael Patterson, the school district’s Seattle attorney, disagrees.

“They absolutely lost,” Patterson said. “This is total vindication for the Everett School District.”

The case was settled days before a scheduled trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle after the young women filed a lawsuit in December 2005 objecting to school administrators reviewing material prior to publication.

The young women argued that the Kodak has been a public forum for students with no content oversight by administrators since 1989. They alleged that the district’s ability to demand editorial control is limited to such things as obscenity, racism, libel and invading a person’s privacy.

In July, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez turned down a school district bid to have the case dismissed without a trial. Martinez sided with the district on one key point, but said there were factual issues left unresolved, including whether the Kodak was a public forum subject to the First Amendment, as Cogdill insisted it was.

In the settlement, the former student editors agreed to changes in the paper’s masthead. In 2005, the co-editors proclaimed in the masthead that the students are not subject to prior review by school officials, and the editors have a right to make editorial decisions subject to district policies.

The district objected to that masthead language, which was published at least once by Lueneburg and Eccleston.

“We need to maintain prior review of any student publication paid for by the school district,” Superintendent Carol Whitehead said Thursday. “This particular lawsuit was not about freedom of speech … It was about a violation of board policy by the students.”

The real question, Whitehead said, was whether students can write a new board policy if they don’t agree with an old one.

“The answer to that is no,” Whitehead said.

One board policy, 3221P, sets out a procedure for settling disputes over editorial content in school publications, including going up the chain of command from the school principal to the school board.

Cogdill said there are other school district policies, however, that protect First Amendment rights of students.

“If (school officials) think what this (settlement) provides is prior restraint on protected free speech, they haven’t read their own policies,” Cogdill said.

The lawsuit has been a two-year drain on the energies of district personnel, and it has cost a lot of money, Whitehead said. She said she doesn’t know now how much the suit has cost the district.

Lueneburg, who has started classes in her second year at Whitman College in Walla Walla, said she pursued the lawsuit long after she graduated from high school because she felt she was right.

“I remember how wronged I felt while I was in high school and how it affected me,” Lueneburg said. “It was something I couldn’t give up on.”

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

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