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FUHSD board settles school newspaper court case

The Fallbrook Union High School District (FUHSD) board of directors approved the full release and settlement agreement in the case of former Tomahawk student writers and Fallbrook Union High School at their December 14 meeting.

The case of Ariosta, et al. vs. Fallbrook Union High School District, et. al., was taken to court in November 2008 because the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claimed former journalism advisor David Evans and five students had their First Amendment rights violated because a story and an editorial prepared for the school newspaper were not allowed to be published.

The first instance of purported censorship occurred November 2007 when Fallbrook principal Rod King pulled an article from publication claiming former superintendent Tom Anthony had refused a fire marshal’s request to shut down the school so that it could be used as a center for evacuees during the Rice Fire.

If the story had been published, it could have put the school district at risk of legal action for libel if administrators knew the claim about Anthony was false.

The lawsuit also claimed 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.

It was reported that representatives from both sides had met on several occasions in an attempt to reach an acceptable agreement. In order for the San Diego County court to approve the settlement, FUHSD had to approve it.

The direct cost to the district was a $1,000 fee to pay the deductible for legal services, which was paid during the 2008-2009 academic year.

As part of the settlement, FUHSD will issue a letter to Chantal Ariosta, Margaret Dupes and Daniela Rogulj as a group, with copies in their school records stating: “The Fallbrook Union High School District strives to be a leader in the education of students. Similarly, the District acknowledges that you are also student leaders, who have worked to protect your rights under the law. The District also acknowledges that all of you were good students. The District believes that with respect to the student newspaper, you operated within the guidelines provided by the advisor and the school. The District hopes that future student writers for The Tomahawk will be instilled with your sense of spirit towards the profession.”

FUHSD will also pay $20,000 to the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, as well as $7,500 to Evans.

“It is a shame that a monetary factor had to be involved,” said board member Bill O’Connor. “This decision was made purely because it was more cost effective, especially since we are dealing with the ACLU. We have to do what is best for the district, especially during this economic situation.”

According to the settlement agreement, The Tomahawk will be reinstated when the high school and district “believe that there is sufficient student interest and available teaching sections in order to offer the class.”

While District Superintendent Dr. Dale Mitchell said it is uncertain when the Tomahawk will be reinstated, new operational guidelines for the student paper have been instated.

“I had not seen any written formal guidelines [for the student newspaper],” said Mitchell. “That does not mean that they didn’t exist. These guidelines will allow for clarification of what is to be printed. The district wants to look out for everyone’s interest.”

The new guidelines clearly state that Education Code 48907 “prohibits expression which is obscene, libelous, slanderous, incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts.” If the principal has concerns about the paper’s content, the concerns must be expressed in writing to the editors and advisor. Students may then choose to print the article without its disputed content or to resubmit the article with proposed changes, corrections or additions. If the principal continues to have concerns, the student may choose to print the article without the disputed contents or to print the disputed contents along with the following explicit statement provided by the District: “The District has the following concerns about this/these issues.”

The guidelines also state that prior to the publication of the first issue of the paper, the principal will meet with the journalism students and advisor to review and discuss the Education Code and guidelines.

The settlement is “intended as a full and complete release and discharge of all claims” against the district and King, and would discharge the District from any liability related to the allegations, it states.

FUHSD board president Sharon Koehler made a point of noting the settlement states that “the terms of this agreement do not constitute an admission of liability by the District and King, but is a compromise of a disputed claim.”

“I believe it is important for the community to be clear on that,” said Koehler.

“We are thankful for the leadership of our superintendent,” said board member Marc Steffler. “This was a complicated, emotional and challenging case. Superintendent Dale Mitchell and Principal King did a great job dealing with this until it was all resolved.”

“I would love the opportunity to talk about what this was really all about, but that is neither here nor there anymore,” said Steffler, who was the only board member opposed to the settlement. “This was not about personal writing; this says a lot about our society.”

“This is an indication of the world we live in,” continued Steffler. “This [settlement] has more to do with greed, avarice and arrogance. But through it all, the great writers, the students, stood through this all and shined.”

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