Have you heard of a SLAPP law?
As you know, the Constitution and Bill of Rights applies to children and teens as well as adults. Students, under the 1969 Tinker* decision, enjoy free speech and freedom of expression. These are not absolute rights allowing all forms and content of speech — there are limits depending on the circumstances.
Students, as well as adults, have the right to speak out on public issues. School and underground newspapers are a means of petitioning the government including a school’s administration.
There have been attempts to stifle discussion of public issues through lawsuits. They are referred to as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Two dozen states have passed anti-SLAPP laws which enable the ongoing discussion of issues important to the public.
As an example, Kathleen Archey, a music teacher at a Nevada high school, sued the school’s newspaper over a story written by students. The story was about the complaints of some parents against Archey for not sending in some of her students’ audition tapes to a state choir competition. In August, 2010, a state court judge dismissed the lawsuit under Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statute.
In a more recent case, three school district employees in Maine criticized their principal for acting abusively towards students. The principal, Pat Godin, sued them for defamation. A federal court in December, 2010 ruled that the employees should be allowed to raise the anti-SLAPP defense to the defamation suit. See Godin v. Schencks for the court’s ruling.
It is just this type of free expression that is protected speech. This may be the first time an anti-SLAPP law has been applied to a high school newspaper. Usually SLAPP cases involve political debate among candidates or over referendums and election propositions.
Did you know that there are laws protecting you against being sued? Can you think of other types of cases that don’t belong in court — lawsuits often characterized as frivolous?
*Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).