Censuring the censors: high school officials receive Muzzle Awards

High school administrators in Tennessee, Florida and California earned a place on the same blacklist as President Bush, the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission chairman.

What do school administrators at Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee, Wellington High School in Florida and Troy High School in California have in common with heavy-hitters like top U.S. officials?

All are governmental bodies that stomped on free speech rights in a major way during 2005, according to the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Being on the list comes with a dubious award called the ''Jefferson Muzzle,'' which is not so much an honor as an embarrassment meant to point out particularly severe lapses in protecting the First Amendment.

While the public school administrators might not be as well-known as U.S. government officials, their disregard for the First Amendment is just as egregious, said Josh Wheeler, assistant director of the Thomas Jefferson Center.

''We feel it is just as important to give Muzzles to high school administrators because these are the people who are teaching the next generation of citizens a terrible lesson in civics,'' Wheeler said. ''We hope the Muzzles will cause the recipients of the award and the colleagues at other schools to perhaps think twice in the future before censoring the speech of the students.''

Becky Ervin, principal of Oak Ridge High School, earned herself a Muzzle by recalling 1,800 copies of the student newspaper, The Oak Leaf, in January 2005 because she felt articles discussing tattoos, body piercing and birth control were topics too mature for high schools students.

Ervin objected to a column explaining birth control methods that quoted a local health center physician saying teenagers do not need parental consent to obtain birth control in Tennessee. Oak Ridge editor Brittany Thomas said Ervin had no qualms about an abstinence-only article, adding that Oak Ridge's sex education program only teaches abstinence.

The censorship at Oak Ridge gained national attention and eventually resulted in the school board voting to give the principal ultimate control over content in The Oak Leaf.

At Wellington High School, Principal Cheryl Alligood pulled copies of the student newspaper, The Wave, in February 2005 because it contained articles dealing with sex and virginity. She claimed the articles would be too disruptive during a time when students where preparing for a major standardized test.

Amanda Escamilla, a student who wrote a column for the issue called ''Lets Talk About Sex,'' said she told Alligood about her plans to write her column and Alligood never told her not to. But after the sex articles printed, Alligood ordered that new pages be inserted to replace Escamilla's column. The newspaper staff complied, but distributed the new paper and the old paper to students.

Students were told they would be suspended if they were caught with the issue containing Escamilla's column.

School officials at Troy High School removed the student newspaper editor from her position in January 2005 after she wrote profiles on three gay students discussing their decisions to come out to friends and family.

Editor Ann Long was told her articles violated a section of the California Education Code that prohibited asking questions to any K-12 student about his or her ''personal beliefs or practices in sex, family life, morality, and religion'' unless the parent or guardian was notified in writing.

Critics say the education code was wrongly applied because it only refers to teachers or other district staff members asking students such questions, not other students asking the questions.

High school administrators have taken home Muzzles nearly every year since the award began in 1992, and Wheeler said he sees no sign of administrators wising up to free speech rights of students. He hopes the booby prizes, at the very least, embarrass the school officials who receive them.

''Unfortunately, many are unapologetic about their actions,'' Wheeler said. ''We nonetheless hope by getting a Muzzle, they will be a little more sensitive about the principles of free speech.''

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