Teacher assailed in student newspaper wins harassment suit against school district.
The unanimous verdict, which includes compensatory and punitive damages, was hailed as precedent-setting by Nathan Goldberg, the Los Angeles attorney who represented the plaintiff.
"This marks the first time that a school district has been held liable for sexual harassment by students against a teacher," Goldberg said.
Janis Adams, a teacher at Palisades High School in Los Angeles, was repeatedly attacked in the unauthorized newspaper, which made explicit sexual references to her. One article claimed that she had starred in pornographic films and now had to wear adult diapers because of her activity in those movies. Another featured a photograph of Adams's head superimposed on the body of a nude woman.
Adams said the stories led to students calling her "Porn Star" and "Diapers." When she complained to school officials, they suspended and transferred some students, but the newspaper continued to be distributed on campus.
"The school saw this as a student-discipline problem instead of a sexual harassment problem," said Goldberg. "They did not do enough to stop the campaign of terror against my client."
Adams sued the school district under the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment.
"State and federal law require that the school district, as an employer, not only stop sexual harassment, but deter future violations," said Goldberg. "The school district didn't do this. The school didn't take advantage of the one resource that made it unique as an employer--its status as an educational institution--to teach students about sexual harassment by educating them about what qualifies as constitutionally protected speech."
Some have criticized the decision as an attack on First Amendment freedoms.
"I'm very concerned about the case," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, an advocacy group for student journalists. "It has a potentially devastating impact on the free speech rights of students in the school district and elsewhere in California. It sends the message that those in power can regulate what those not in power read and say."
Goodman predicted that schools will now try to protect themselves from harassment suits by censoring articles that are even remotely critical of teachers. "Public employees must accept criticism from the people they serve. That is part of life."
Goldberg said the case wasn't about the First Amendment. "No one was asking the school district to limit the students' free speech rights. The articles at issue were beyond the bounds of free speech. Teachers in the school have a right to work in an environment where the atmosphere is not pervaded by hostile, sexually derisive comments," he said.
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|Title Annotation:||Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2002|
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