Principals censor newspapers at two Calif. schools

Despite state law protecting expression, officials continue to suppress student speech

CALIFORNIA -- Principals at two different high schools have censored their schools' student newspapers in recent months, despite a 23-year-old law that grants free-expression rights to students in the Golden State.

The principal of Nogales High School, in the Los Angeles suburb of La Puente, confiscated all 2,400 copies of the Feb. 24 issue of The Scroll because he objected to an article in the newspaper about "backyard wrestling."

According to the article in The Scroll, backyard wrestling "takes place on homemade wrestling rings or on trampolines in back yards. Most participants include kids ranging [in age] from ten to twenty." The article discussed different forms of backyard wrestling, including "hard-core" matches that allow wrestlers "to use weapons, such as metal chairs or bats."

In a memo to the journalism students about his decision to confiscate the newspapers, principal Marv Abrams said, "Our campus newspaper does not exist as a forum for irresponsibility and nonsense. We don't print stories about teenage Nazis, hard drinking seniors, or people who hit each other over the head with ladders."

Abrams also cited the photo of two boys wrestling on a mattress as a reason why he confiscated the newspapers.

"We are not going to run pictures of people on mattresses, I don't care what they're doing," he said in the memo.

Abrams did not return repeated phone calls made to his office by the Report.

Keith Smith, editor of The Scroll, said he saw nothing wrong with the article. He said he is worried that this situation may set a precedent for future censorship of the paper.

Under California law, principals may review school-sponsored publications prior to distribution, but have limited power to censor articles. According to Section 48907 of the California Education Code, "there shall be no prior restraint of material prepared for official school publications" unless the content is obscene, libelous, slanderous, likely to create a clear and present danger by inciting students to commit unlawful acts on school premises or violate school regulations, or likely to cause a substantial disruption in the school day.

In addition, the law states that "school officials shall have the burden of showing justification without undue delay prior to any limitation of student expression."

According to Smith, the only justification Abrams gave the newspaper staff for confiscating the Feb. 24 issue was the memo citing six "problems with the mattress article."

"Basically, [Abrams] said the story was nonsense," Smith said.

Under California law, however, nonsense is not a justification for censorship, and Smith said he is working with an attorney to try to resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, about 75 miles west of Los Angeles, the principal of Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard censored a student newspaper article about the school district's teen-parenting program in March.

According to Selby Cull, editor of the Spartan, administrators told the newspaper staff that the article, titled "When Children Have Children," was "inappropriate." The article described the experiences of several teen-age mothers in a teen-parenting program at Rio Mesa High School. The program allows adolescent mothers and fathers to attend school on a special schedule and provides day care for their children. Several of the teen-agers interviewed in the article said they had not used birth control prior to becoming pregnant.

Cull said principal Barry Barowitz told her the article portrayed the teen-parent program as supporting students' poor decisions, which was not the image school officials wanted to send out to the community. Cull also said Barowitz objected to the baseball diamond graphic used to illustrate the article, which was part of a feature section on sex. Cull said Barowitz called the graphic sensationalistic.

Barowitz did not return repeated phone calls made to his office by the Report.

Cull said Barowitz agreed that nothing in the article was obscene, libelous, slanderous or any of the things prohibited by California law, but she said Barowitz insisted he had the right to censor the article because it was inappropriate.

"I was really enraged and hurt," Cull said. "I just couldn't believe this was happening to us. We read about this stuff all the time in journalism, and our teacher was always telling us, 'Know your rights, know what you can publish and what you can't publish,' but we always brushed her off, like that's ever going to happen to us. But then suddenly it did. We were just kind of shocked."

In April, Cull was planning to meet with the superintendent of the Oxnard Union High School District. She said she ultimately wants to be able to publish the article in the Spartan.

"We thought it was an appropriate article," Cull said. "We thought it was a well-written article. We still do."

In the meantime, students at Camarillo High School, also in the Oxnard district, published the censored article in their own student newspaper, the Stinger.

reports, Spring 2000