Three Saratoga High School students successfully utilized their rights as student journalists in late August, after they each received subpoenas requesting the identities of several anonymous sources pertaining to the sexual assault and suicide case of Audrie Pott from last September.
The subpoenas originated from the lawsuit filed by the Pott family, after their 15-year old daughter was sexually assaulted by three boys at a party. Pictures of the incident were posted on various social networking platforms, and eight days later, Pott chose to take her own life. Robert Allard, who represents the Pott family, claims that Pott’s suicide was primarily provoked by the rapid spread of the photographs, also declaring that large numbers of Saratoga students viewed the incriminating photos online.
As a response to the affluence of media attention Saratoga High School began to experience, three student journalists — Samuel Liu, Cristina Curcelli and Sabrina Chen — started investigating within their own school to see if the media accusations, and Allard’s, were legitimate. Dozens of students were interviewed on the basis of anonymity, and Liu, Curcelli and Chen later published an article on April 14 citing evidence that countered the claims made by Allard.
“The Falcon spoke to more than four dozen students, and none of them had seen the photos,” the three journalists said in their April article.
The sources they spoke to were all students somehow connected or even acquainted with people who were present the night of the sexual assault.
“Our main reporting hinged on not a random poll, but on a few key sources well acquainted with the situation,” Lio said. “These were people who were part of the circle of friends, some who had seen the photos.”
Allard requested the personal information and identities of the various sources that the journalists had spoken to, but the students refused to reveal their sources.
“Part of me wanted to help the family bring justice to these boys, [but] I also knew that I had promised confidentiality to my sources,” Liu said.
Allard refuted the journalists’ unwillingness to comply in a statement that questioned the legitimacy of student publications, stating that the purpose of a high school newspaper is purely educational, rather than a recognized platform for delivering information. He went on to claim that the student journalists’ refusal to reveal their sources contributed to the alleged cover up by Saratoga High School and promoted the supposed cyberbullying that took place.
“[The three journalists] know the identities of at least 10 students who received those photographs,” Allard said, according to BuzzFeed. “If they are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. We have also alleged a conspiracy to conceal critical information, and we would like to believe that [the journalists] were aiding our cause in unveiling cyberbullying for the protection of all other students in schools across the state. Continued resistance to this subpoena fosters cyberbullying.”
The three students sought help after receiving the subpoenas by contacting the Student Press Law Center, with many questions regarding their rights as student journalists and the possible discrepancy between a student and a professional journalist.
“It turned out my questions were good questions because they had never been answered before, at least on the high school level,” Liu said.
Liu and his fellow journalists received pro bono representation from Guylyn Cummins, who proceeded to contact Allard and cited the California Shield Laws, which protect both the journalists and their sources.
“California’s news shield affords journalists a constitutional immunity against contempt that cannot be pierced in a civil lawsuit,” Cummins said, according to Student Press Law Center.
Cummins also refuted Allard’s earlier statement regarding the legitimacy of student-produced publications.
“Your emphasis on the educational function of the school or its newspaper is further misplaced given California’s strong student press rights statutes that make clear that student media is a vehicle for expression,” Cummins wrote in an email to Allard, according to BuzzFeed.
The subpoenas were finally withdrawn after their issuing was met with a significant amount of pushback. The student journalists walked away from the ordeal better informed about their rights as journalists.
“The subpoena was a sign that we had been doing something right,” Liu said. “We had gotten crucial information — we had done good journalism. In some strange, twisted way, it was a badge to wear with pride.”