Students face prior restraint after controversial 'sex issue'

CALIFORNIA -- High school students in Whittier say their principal is not allowing them to publish the June issue of their student newspaper as punishment for their May issue, which focused on sex.

The May issue of The Freelancer, the student newspaper at La Serna High School, included a center spread devoted to discussing student opinions on sex. The spread included a sexually suggestive photo (not of students), an interview with a pregnant student and a survey that, among other things, found that 41 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds reported being sexually active.

The package also included a word search that included sex-related terms on a separate page.

The ''sex issue,'' as it has come to be known, elicited complaints from faculty and parents alike who co-editor in chief Claire Webster said were particularly offended by the word search and photograph.

''We were expecting a reaction,'' Webster said.

''We wanted the students to think about the risks involved in [sex], but we didn't expect a lot of people to be as angry as they were with it.''

Martin Plourde, principal at La Serna High School, did not return repeated calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Webster said in the days following the May issue, Plourde came and spoke to The Freelancer staff, saying because of the issue he would not allow them to publish for the rest of the year. She said he reconsidered when they told him the planned topic of the June issue was ''unsung heroes.''

Webster said Plourde agreed to let them publish the issue, as long as he reviewed the content prior to publication and approved of the subject matter. However, when the paper was ready to print, Plourde would not let it go to press.

According to an e-mail co-authored by Webster and co-editor in chief Sergio Hernandez, Plourde would not allow the June issue to be printed due to a news story explaining that The Freelancer's adviser, Holly Vance, was asked to resign over the May issue and, in fact, would not be advising the newspaper in the fall.

Vance declined to comment.

Plourde also allegedly took issue with Webster's written response to a letter to the editor regarding an article about Christianity in the March issue.

The students claim Plourde said they could not print the issue because it

''went beyond the scope'' of the unsung heroes theme. But Webster said the students never intended the June issue to consist only of stories about unsung heroes.

''We told him the next issue was going to focus on unsung heroes, which we meant to be the theme page,'' Webster said. ''And he repeatedly called himself a professional journalist, so we thought he knew what we meant.''

After being told by Plourde that their June issue would not print, the students appealed to Sandra Thorstenson, superintendent of the Whittier Union High School District.

Thorstenson did not return repeated calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Hernandez said in an e-mail that he and Webster met with Thorstenson Thursday and that she said the June issue's publication was contingent on Plourde's approval.

''She ... maintained that the censorship of our June issue was not a question of whether or not it was obscene, libelous, likely to incite disruption, etc., but that it went against the agreement we had with Mr. Plourde that our May issue would, as punishment, be 'our last issue,''' Hernandez said in an e-mail.

California is one of six states to enact laws protecting student free expression beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled as protected speech for student journalists. The California law explicitly prohibits prior restraint of student publications unless the material is obscene, libelous, slanderous or if it incites disruption of the orderly operation of the school or students to commit unlawful acts.

Webster said the students have not yet decided if they want to pursue legal action, but said they have not ruled it out.

''We haven't sat down and discussed what we want to do,'' Webster said.

Webster said Thorstenson seemed generally sympathetic to the students' claims but said she preferred not to re-visit the controversial ''sex issue.''

''She seemed pretty adamant on the whole 'let's move on and be friends' thing,'' Webster said.

California, La Serna High School, news, The Freelancer