Extra-curricular activities cut in Utah


Gay student club sparks district-wide club ban, media restrictions





UTAH — When the Salt Lake City School Board found they could not single out and ban a gay student organization at East High School last March, they voted instead to eliminate all extra-curricular student clubs in the district.

The federal Equal Access Act guarantees all student groups the right to use school facilities on an equal basis — in order to ban one group, the school board had to ban them all. Only curriculum-related organizations remain under the ban.

East High School’s Gay Straight Alliance is out, as are club sports like hockey, rugby, and water polo, multi-cultural groups like the Native American club and the Polynesian club, and even service organizations like the Key club and Human Rights club. Varsity sports and curriculum-related organizations remain. The classroom-produced student media still exist, but student newspapers at all three of the district’s high schools have been put under new restrictions regarding editorial content and advertising policies.

“The newspapers are considered journalism classes, and are therefore exempt from the clubs policy,” said assistant superintendent Harold Trussel. “We always have a faculty adviser, and the editors can choose to report on any activities that the school is interested in. But the Board of Education has said that gay student clubs are non-curriculum related. The newspapers can’t accept ads for things that are inappropriate for the students — for example, sexual products, or alcohol and cigarettes, or ads for R-rated movies. When it comes to health education and other controversial issues, basically anything that can’t be taught in class can’t be put in the school newspapers either. The papers and yearbooks come under the school’s authority, and are governed as classes. If there’s things that are inappropriate, it ultimately comes to the principal’s authority.”

Student newspapers in the district are permitted to cover events outside of the school that students are involved in, and have covered the ban itself, but newly revised guidelines leave advertising and editorial policies in the hands of the schools’ prinicipals. Prior review is to be the rule on everything that goes into the student newspaper, and the distribution of underground newspapers (meaning not approved by the principal) is expressly forbidden.

“In Utah in general, people are kind of censored,” said Georgia Geerlings, faculty adviser to the newspaper at East High School. “We just don’t put anything controversial in the paper. This is Utah. It’s different here — there’s real strict ideas here about what can and can’t be said. There’s things we just can’t publish. Now that this whole thing’s on the burner, people’s sensors are up and active. The medium, if you want to call it that, of getting information out is not working here. In Utah, what is considered appropriate in a high school is… different. Things are so controlled here, I really wouldn’t even be willing to fight this.”

The district’s guidelines were revised in January to ensure that student newspapers would remain as curriculum-related, classroom-oriented organizations. The policy offers only minimal protections for student journalists and reiterates that they fall under the principal’s authority.

“They had me look at the new policy in January,” said Ruth Campbell, the newspaper adviser at Highlands High School. “They took three paragraphs and had their lawyers turn it into three pages. It looks like there’s massive new censorship, but it’s basically the same as it was before. It’s basically the same as in the decision with Hazelwood. This is not an open forum. This is not a free press. The new policy really is just a reminder of that.”


reports, Spring 1997