Principal censors story of teacher's ties to underage actor, citing invasion of privacy
Students say article was based on court files, fact-checked by advisers
CALIFORNIA — When two high school journalists reported on a teacher’s relationship with a Hollywood actor, they quickly learned that their definition of newsworthy did not coincide with their school’s. Administrators told the students their article could not be published because it was an invasion of privacy.
The Venice High School students based their article on court documents they uncovered that chronicled their health teacher’s relationship with actor Edward Furlong. In their article for The Oarsman, Naldy Estrada and Julio Robles included details in a lawsuit filed by the teacher, Jacqueline Domac, against Furlong. She was seeking damages after he fired her as his manager in 1998.
In her suit, Domac said that she and Furlong had a “quasi-spousal” relationship that began more than 10 years ago when he was a minor.
The students also reported on her 1995 misdemeanor conviction for disturbing the peace, which was later expunged from her record.
Principal Jan Davis killed the article in May, arguing if it ran it would have damaged Domac’s reputation. The student journalists say the community deserves to know about Domac’s relationship with Furlong because she teaches sex education at the school.
The students learned about the relationship while researching an article about a Web site that Domac launched to curtail junk food sales at school. While searching for Domac’s name on Google.com, several stories about Domac and Furlong’s relationship appeared.
Estrada and Robles then sifted through Domac’s court documents at the Los Angeles Superior Court with the help of Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn Bunting, who volunteers as a journalism tutor at the school.
According to the court documents the students obtained, Domac met Furlong on the set of the 1991 film “Terminator 2” where she worked as his stand-in. Domac said in her lawsuit that they moved in together when Furlong was 16 and she was 29, reported the Los Angeles Times in an article about the censorship incident.
At a meeting between the students, Domac, Principal Davis, a school district attorney and a union representative, Domac threatened to sue the students for libel and slander if the article was published.
Oarsman adviser Nancy Zubiri, Bunting and media law attorney Susan Seager contend they cleared the article for libelous material before turning it in to the principal for review.
Seager, who is assisting the students pro bono, said the right to publish information from Domac’s court records is protected from lawsuits, so long as the information is fairly and accurately described.
“The suppression of the news story violated the school district’s own policy as well as California law and the First Amendment,” Seager said. “This is a very important story about a teacher, who has an important job [and] had a very public relationship with an actor, according to court documents she herself filed.”
Seager said she is unsure whether the students will file a lawsuit because Estrada has already graduated. Seager said the students are more interested in making the district aware of its own policy and change it.
Under district policy, an article may not be censored “merely because it is controversial.” It says, however, that a school newspaper may not publish material that “violates the right of privacy.”
Principal Davis did not return several phone calls requesting comment, but told the Los Angeles Times that the information in the article was inapplicable to Domac’s position at the high school.
“I don’t think that anyone’s business, public or private, should be in the school newspaper,” Davis said. “As a district employee, all staff and teachers are entitled to privacy. I don’t believe it’s an issue of censorship. I might be the public’s right to know but, as the principal, I don’t think it’s the student newspaper’s place to tell that story.”
Estrada and Robles said they were disappointed that their article was censored.
“School officials at Venice High have often taught us to do the right thing and to be open-minded, Estrada and Robles wrote in a commentary published in the Los Angeles Times. “Yet in the case of Domac, they did just the opposite.”
California, Fall 2003, reports, The Oarsman, Venice High School