School wins internet suit

The school was found blameless on all counts in a $100 million lawsuit filed in April 2005 by the parents of a former student who was the subject of derogatory comments on a website to promote his acting career. An arbitration judge issued the decision on Aug. 24, and the decision was upheld two weeks ago by the Superior Court of Los Angeles. The plaintiffs, Lee and Gita Caplin, were ordered to pay the school’s legal costs, President Thomas C. Hudnut said.

“It’s gratifying to learn that our handling of the case and our judgment were vindicated,” Hudnut said. “I have to confess that I felt relieved when the judge issued her findings. I was a little surprised at that because I had been living with it for a while, but now I realized that living with it was living with a burden, and the burden has been removed from my shoulders.”

The parents contended that students used school computers to send the derogatory remarks to their 15-year old son in October 2004. Lee Caplin sent the postings to Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra, who was able to identify seven of the students. The students acknowledged thier culpability in letters to Hudnut and were put on probation for the remainder of their high school careers.

The Caplins filed a $100 million lawsuit in April 2005, charging the school with negligence, assault with death threats and hate crimes, invasion of privacy, fraud and conspiracy.

“The clear weight of the evidence supports that Respondents did not disclose private information about [the Caplins’ son]; the information that is claimed to be private was in fact already disclosed and in most instances by Claimant and/or his family,” wrote Arbitrator Judith M. Ryan in her final decision.

Ryan wrote that the e-mail postings were “vicious, vile, and beyond common decency,” but noted that the website created by the Caplins had no mechanism to block offensive postings.

Ryan ruled that the postings on the Caplin’s website were not considered death threats even though the words by themselves can be considered as death threats. The District Attorney’s office determined not to prosecute the postings as hate crime incidents.

The suit claimed that the school failed to protect the teenager and also allowed the Chronicle to publish his name and the school he attended. The newspaper’s adviser Kathleen Neumeyer opted for separate representation and the Los Angeles County Superior Court dismissed the charges against her in September 2005.

Ryan’s decision ruled “that the information in the Chronicle article was not understood in a defamatory sense,” and that the plantiff did not present any contrary evidence.

The school won its first victory when the Superior Court decided that the case was to be decided in arbitration. The Caplins appealed the suitability of the decision to move to arbitration, but were denied by the California Court of Appeals. 

“I don’t think that any appeal of the decision would have any legs,” Hudnut said. “I hope we have heard the last of it.”