(CN) – High school students and their faculty advisor on the school newspaper convinced a federal judge in San Diego to strike most of the affirmative defenses raised by their school district in a lawsuit over a principal’s decision to shut down the newspaper over content disputes.
During the 2007-08 school year, Fallbrook High School seniors Chantal Ariosta and Margaret Dupes wrote articles for the student paper, The Tomahawk. Ariosta’s article was critical of former Fallbrook Union High School superintendent Tom Anthony’s refusal to comply with a fire marshal request to close Fallbrook High School for use as an evacuation center during the wildfires of October 2007. Dupes wrote an editorial that critiqued the Bush administration’s abstinence-only sex education policies and a supporting rally held at the school that year.
Fallbrook High School principal Rod King ordered the articles removed shortly after they were published.
Teacher David Evans served as the faculty advisor to the journalism class and the student paper. In June 2008, he complained to the school district’s president about King’s actions in removing the articles.
The next day, King met with Evans and expressed his displeasure over Evans’ conversation with the school district president. During this meeting, King informed Evans that the journalism class was canceled and The Tomahawk would no longer be published.
Evans, Ariosta, Dupes and a third student editor named Daniela Rogulj, along with two other students who planned on taking the journalism class before it was canceled, filed suit against the school district and King. The lawsuit alleges violations of California law and federal constitutional violations, including violations of the First Amendment.
The defendants asserted 20 affirmative defenses, including the defenses of qualified immunity, immunity for discretionary acts and failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The plaintiffs moved to strike the affirmative defenses as legally insufficient.
U.S. District Judge James Lorenz agreed with the plaintiffs for the most part, ruling that immunity cannot be asserted for the federal constitutional claims because state law cannot protect actions that are improper under federal law.
However, Lorenz said certain employment-related claims raised by Evans might be subject to affirmative defenses, because the record at this point is unclear whether the affirmative defenses are insufficient as a matter of law.
Lorenz allowed the defendants to amend several of their affirmative defenses.