An interesting court case in Northwest Arkansas could have damaging ripple effects across the state if the Huntsville School District is successful in keeping court proceedings and records secret in a sexual harassment and abuse case involving middle school basketball players.
It’s a classic case of privacy versus the public’s right to know.
The Madison County Record, a weekly newspaper in Huntsville, last week filed a motion in the U.S. District Court in Fayetteville to intervene in a federal case, opposing possible limits on pretrial publicity, according to a story in Friday’s Arkansas Press Association Publisher Weekly.
The newspaper maintains that it has an interest in protecting open proceedings for the public and itself in a case alleging the Huntsville School District knew of sexual harassment and abuse occurring to its boys middle school basketball players by older boys – but did not act to curtail it, the APA story states.
Earlier last week, the school district filed a motion to limit pretrial publicity, stating that sealing the court records and proceedings would protect the identity of the victims and other students involved.
The identities of child victims, their families, perpetrators and others involved are protected by state law as well as federal Title IX regulations, the APA story points out. The school district is arguing that those privacy protections also extend to judicial proceedings.
That would have a chilling effect on the public’s right to know what actually happened in these alleged school-related incidents of sexual harassment and abuse.
The Huntsville School District’s motion states: “The unfortunate reality is that the only way to protect all of these children from the consequences of a decision adults make is to seal these proceedings in their entirety. No live testimony and no record of this case – be it a pleading, motion, brief, court order or otherwise, should be open to the public without a prior order of this Court.”
Wow. Is the school district protecting the children involved or itself?
The school district is also seeking a gag order to prohibit attorneys and participants from talking to the media about the case or talking about the case on social media to limit pretrial publicity about the case. The motion contends attorneys for the plaintiffs are attempting to try the case in the media.
Of course, the school district would also like to keep everything in this case under wraps because the details of the case are likely to make school officials look bad – really bad.
Madison County Record lawyers John Tull and Noah Watson argue in their motion that the newspaper has been covering the story, including making FOIA requests of the school district about the alleged incident, the APA story states. The motion makes clear the newspaper isn’t seeking to be part of the courtroom debate about the allegations themselves.
“Here, the Record does not seek to litigate this case on the merits,” the motion reads. “Instead, it wishes to intervene for the limited purpose of protecting the public’s right to the judicial proceedings, including the public statements of counsel and parties.”
A brief filed in support of the newspaper’s motions states, “The parents whose children attend the district and the community as a whole have interests in these proceedings. Many of them keep informed by reading the Record. The district’s motion to limit pretrial publicity will harm the Record’s, the parents’ and the community’s interests in public access to the courts.”
Of course it would. The school district’s intent is to limit its liability and damage to its reputation.
The newspaper’s motion argues the parents’ and the public’s interests are especially important in this case, given that it concerns alleged failures by the Huntsville School District to heed warnings that its students were experiencing sexual harassment and assault on campus, the APA story states. It also says that until recently the school district had been supplying information to the newspaper, including the names of students involved.
So there you go.
According to a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the lawsuit was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville by Rebecca Nelle on behalf of her child, identified as B.N.
In her suit, Nelle said the school district knew students on the boys middle school basketball team were being sexually harassed and assaulted by older boys and did little or nothing to stop it.
The complaint alleges federal Title IX violations arising from deliberate indifference to, and actual knowledge of sexual harassment and sexual assault of multiple students; the district’s failure to promptly and properly investigate reports of sexual harassment; and claims a hostile education environment was created that denied B.N. and other students access to educational opportunities.
The school district has denied liability and the allegations in Nelle’s complaint, according to the Democrat-Gazette story, adding that the district has also denied school officials knew of the abuse and did nothing about it.
As a matter of policy, most newspapers, including The Jonesboro Sun, do not publish the names of victims of sexual harassment and abuse without the victim’s consent. In this case – and many like it – the names of victims and, to a certain extent, the perpetrators – unless charged – are irrelevant.
The merits of the case are whether the school district failed to act on complaints of sexual harassment and abuse. Trying to hide what happened would be an abuse of the judicial system by those who may have failed to protect the victims.
That would be a double insult to the victims and a miscarriage of justice.
Chris Wessel, editor of The Sun, can be reached at 935-5525, Ext. 250, or firstname.lastname@example.org.