Story on gay teen life sparks controversy
'Well written' article results in policy review for student newspaper
COLORADO — The editor of a student newspaper in Colorado Springs who authored a story about gay youth has seen a backlash of local and administrative protest, including a push by some to revise the district’s student publications guidelines.
Mary Margaret Nussbaum wrote the story as a feature article for the front page of the Palmer High School Lever.
“It was an article about difference in high school” she said. “We’d been thinking about it for a while, and [other staff members] planned to write about it. We’d gotten letters from gay and bi-sexual students saying there was a need for this [article].” According to Nussbaum, the day after the article was published, a parent called the school principal and complained about the article.
“Twenty-four hours after distribution, the phones were ringing off the hook” said Lever adviser Vince Puzick. He said the article was originally not intended to be a straight news story, that it dealt not with balancing competing views on homosexuality, but with describing what it’s like to be a gay member of the population. Puzick said opponents of the article did not argue its journalistic quality, and that “critics even agreed it was well written.”
The article included references to a Department of Health and Human Services study into gay teen suicide rates, as well as interviews with two lesbians, one of whom is a Palmer student, and information about a local support and activity group for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. At the end of the article, Nussbaum included phone numbers for the support group and a national gay/lesbian/bisexual youth hotline.
Puzick said a school board meeting was held on November 6 to decide on the present student publication guidelines. At the meeting, he said, members of the public were invited to make suggestions about changing the guidelines. He said board members even brought a tentative revision of the guidelines to the meeting. The new policy guidelines included a proposed list of inappropriate topics of discussion, and a requirement that the student paper not express an opinion on controversial topics that would affect the school’s neutrality on those topics, said Puzick. He pointed out, however, that there were many in the audience at the meeting who supported the article and had no wish to see the guidelines altered.
In revising the guidelines, the school board may find itself running up against not only public opinion but state law as well. In 1990, Colorado passed a student free expression law giving student editors of school-sponsored student publications the ability to determine the news, opinion, and advertising content of their publications.
Bruce Doyle, a member of the school board, said the Colorado state law provides more protection than the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazlewood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed more censorship of school-sponsored student newspapers under the First Amendment.
“These students are pretty well protected by the law” he said.
Doyle said that the school board would decide what changes in the guidelines to make, if any, at a meeting scheduled for Dec. 11. The student publications guidelines, said Doyle, would then be made available to the public.
reports, Winter 1996-97