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ACLU files lawsuit against high school district, principal

On November 10, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against Fallbrook Union High School District (FUHSD) and Rod King, principal of Fallbrook High School, on behalf of six individuals – five students and one teacher – claiming their First Amendment rights were violated because a story and an editorial prepared for the school newspaper were not allowed to be published.

In addition, the suit claims that FUHSD and King wrongly cancelled the journalism class for the 2008-2009 school year and removed the teacher as advisor without a “constitutionally appropriate” reason.

The lawsuit claims that the rights of students Chantal Ariosta, Margaret Dupes and Daniel Rogulj, graduates of the Class of 2008; Amber McCracken, an eleventh grade student; Nicole Walker, a twelfth grade student; and teacher David Evans were violated and seeks a judgment to that effect.

The suit also requests an injunction ordering FUHSD to reinstate the journalism class (and Evans’ stipend) within the current academic year; an injunction prohibiting FUHSD from censoring any future publication of the article or editorial in the school newspaper or otherwise; general, special, compensatory and actual damages; punitive damages; attorneys’ fees; and other costs relating to the suit.

How the story goes

Ariosta, a senior at Fallbrook High last year, claims to have authored an article in November 2007 regarding the “alleged refusal of former FUHSD Superintendent Tom Anthony to comply with a request from the fire marshal to close the school for use as an evacuation center during the Rice Fire in October 2007 and the subsequent buyout of Mr. Anthony’s contract.”

The article was prepared to run in the December 2007 issue of the school newspaper, The Tomahawk.

The suit charges that when King reviewed the pre-press proof copy of the newspaper, he instructed Evans to hold the article from publication, violating Ariosta’s free speech rights.

The Village News, investigating the allegation made in the article, has not been able to validate the claim made about Anthony, leading to speculation that the story could have contained falsehoods and been considered libelous.

Given that the school district is responsible for stories contained in the Fallbrook High newspaper, King could have been acting in the district’s best interest.

“It’s clear that the article was libelous,” said attorney Dan Shinoff, who has been retained by FUHSD.

Whose opinion was it?

Another charge in the lawsuit is that King also held from publication an editorial (opinion) piece written by one student and edited by another this past May critiquing the Bush Administration’s abstinence-only policy for sex education.

The suit states that the editorial “maintained professional standards of English and journalism” and goes on to debate the right of freedom of opinion and expression.

The Village News has a copy of this editorial piece, which appears to be written from the perspective of an adult.

A variety of comments have been shared with this newspaper about the preparation of the editorial; some claim it was a “class project” and that various individuals were involved.

While the lawsuit argues that the plaintiffs (students) view the principal as biased toward their opinion of sex education, it seems more likely the reason the piece may have been held from publication because a question could easily have risen as to who really authored the editorial.

It seems easily possible that the decision to hold the editorial may have been based on whether or not it was truly student-produced, rather than the actual “pro or con” opinion contained within.

“Rod King was told three different versions of who wrote [the editorial],” said Shinoff. “He was even told it was done in a collaborative effort.”

Mix in a board member

The story took on a complicated dimension when District Board of Trustees President Bill O’Connor fraternized with Evans at a social event on June 4.

In the suit, it claims that at the party, Evans spoke to O’Connor about King’s actions and encouraged him to get the interim superintendent, Dr. Robert French, involved.

Evans claims that the following day, June 5, the principal called him in and “chastised [him].”

Evans said he was also advised at that time that the journalism class was being cancelled and that he was being removed as advisor.

He appears to have interpreted this as an act of discipline for incurring the principal’s supposed displeasure, and the lawsuit claims there was “no legitimate, non-retaliatory explanation” for the moving of the class from a curricular activity to an extracurricular.

Evans claims he lost his position as journalism teacher because of his contact with O’Connor about the matter.

Class cuts were no surprise

As the 2007-2008 school year wound down, red pens were traveling over the class schedule as decisions were made in order to reduce the budget, given the cuts handed down by the State of California and other expected deficits.

During this timeframe, the Village News was told that between two and three dozen class sections would likely be trimmed from the 2008-2009 curriculum.

As those decisions became final, the journalism class was one of the final cuts made; it was moved from the regular curriculum schedule to an after-school, or extracurricular, option for students, as many special interest classes typically are.

The class has continued as an extracurricular, with an assigned advisor, and is due to produce the first 2008-2009 issue of The Tomahawk in less than two weeks.

“The legislature has determined that journalism isn’t a mandated class,” said Shinoff, explaining why it was one of the sections cut due to budget.

The ultimatum

After King’s announcement, Evans sent French a letter detailing his view of the entire situation – the holding of both the story and the editorial piece and the cutting of the journalism class – and demanding reinstatement of the class, his position in regard to it and an apology from the school administration.

His demand was not met.

ACLU contacted, suit filed

Evans, his students and certain parents/guardians (because some of the students are minors) took their complaint to the ACLU, which subsequently filed a lawsuit on their behalf.

In the lawsuit, the principal, in part, is accused of adverse employment action against Evans and “oppression, fraud, or malice, with evil motive or intent, and/or with reckless or callous indifference to the constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs.”

Included in the lawsuit is the statement that “…in an abundance of caution, Evans has filed or will shortly file a claim with the Labor Commissioner,” alleging violations of his rights under Labor Code 1102.5.

The amount of that potential claim was not disclosed.

Who is going to pay?

According to Shinoff, if the lawsuit makes its way to trial, FUHSD is going to be at least $25,000 poorer.

“That is absolutely the minimum,” he said, firm in the belief that the cost relating to fighting a lawsuit like this is unfortunate for both the district and the student body.

“If the ACLU would like to contribute $25,000 to Fallbrook High School so they can offer a wonderful journalism class , I’m sure it would be accepted in good spirit,” said Shinoff.

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