S-E-X — if you are a high school journalist the three-letter word often can be a quick ticket to administrative criticism.
Students in California, Ohio and Texas experienced censorship in the past few months because of content deemed inappropriately sexual. And an Indiana high school principal brought up the possibility of prior review after a student newspaper spread included information on condoms, sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
Grover Cleveland High School’s principal confiscated the Valentine’s Day issue of Le Sabre when it printed a diagram of the vagina on the front page. In addition, several students were suspended the following day when they wore T-shirts opposing the censorship.
Editor in Chief Richard Edmond said the staff now has to turn in newspaper content to Assistant Principal Robert Rakauskas one week earlier than usual. He said he does not plan to fight the administration because he fears his adviser’s job would be on the line.
“It cuts away from our time and we never did anything wrong,” Edmond said. “There’s no part of it that I think is OK, but we only have two issues left until the end of the year and I’d rather just do it than get our adviser fired.”
In a Feb. 19 Los Angeles Times article, Principal Bob Marks said the Feb. 14 Le Sabre issue could have caused “a potential disruption.” But Edmond said the staff simply wanted to bring awareness to the 10th anniversary of V-Day, an annual observance dedicated to ending violence against women.
The school publications policy states that material should be prohibited if it could cause a “substantial disruption,” which is “the threat of physical violence in the school or nearby community and/or the disruption of the school’s educational program.”
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the SPLC, said California’s Student Free Expression Law was designed to offer students more protection, but administrators are still allowed to review content.
“In California, the education code requires administrators to demonstrate that what they want to censor is illegal or creates a clear and present danger or disruption,” Goldstein said. “I’m sure the paper was provocative, but provocative isn’t enough.”
Coleen Bondy, adviser and English teacher, said although the school has authority to use prior review, the policy has not been enforced for years, until after the V-Day issue.
“I knew we were pushing the envelope with what we were doing,” Bondy said. “My personal feeling is that a vagina is not obscene. I thought a diagram of a vagina was something students could handle.”
But Bondy, a former newspaper reporter, said she had second thoughts after she knew of parental complaints and heard students were using the front-page picture to sexually harass others.
“The administration has made it clear that I put them in a very uncomfortable position and I’m really sympathetic about that,” she said. “On the one hand we are teaching kids about First Amendment rights … on the other hand they apparently don’t have those rights as high school students.”
Calls to Marks were not returned.
Prior review averted
The staff of The Electron and Franklin Community High School Principal Craig McCaffrey together proposed new guidelines to govern the Indiana school’s student paper at the March school board meeting, after a January newspaper spread on sex prompted the principal to consider prior review.
McCaffrey said because the spread — which included information on birth control, STDs and condoms — was distributed in an educational setting, editors should have included ways students could get more information.
Student Editor Ricci Warwick said she attended the February school board meeting after McCaffrey told the staff he intended to institute prior review. This prompted a mediation between McCaffrey, Warwick and the yearbook editor, which John Wales, president of the Franklin school board, said led to a “process for covering controversial topics covered by The Electron.”
In the future the staff must determine the relevance of any article to FCHS students, ensure the health and safety of students is not at risk, give a “heads up” to the principal if the story is controversial and answer several critical questions before publishing the article.
A “controversial” article is defined as something that could be inappropriate for certain students. Topics considered “controversial” include: sex, drug and alcohol use, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, religion, gangs, violence, race, and criminal proceedings involving students or staff.
“It’s pretty much the same thing we’ve always done, but it just makes [McCaffrey] feel better,” Warwick said, adding that McCaffrey does not actually remove or alter content. “I think as long as [the staff] practices responsible journalism, I don’t think there will be any problem at all.”
So far the staff has published two issues, and they recently followed procedure by giving McCaffrey a “heads-up” about an upcoming abortion spread, which he approved.
McCaffrey did not return the SPLC’s call requesting comment.
Show cannot go on
The censorship of a one-act play during a Feb. 8 annual Yellow Springs High School fundraiser caused community and school members to express their opposition at the February school board meeting.
Yellow Springs Schools Superintendent Norm Glisman said some lines in Peter Keahy’s “Catcalls” were prohibited by the student handbook. He and Principal John Gudgel gave the student a choice: change the dialogue or do not perform the play at all. Keahy refused to change the lines, and instead students in his production read aloud a statement against censorship.
According to English teacher Diseree Nickell, the prohibited language was a part of several “suggestive” lines in the play where male construction workers were hitting on females. But Nickell said the play was meant to send an anti-sexism message by criticizing the men and what they said to the women.
Ohio’s Yellow Springs News reported Feb. 21 that more than 60 students, parents and residents came to the Feb. 14 board meeting to oppose the censorship. Gudgel said at the time that school officials would initiate a process involving students and faculty, the Yellow Springs Theater Arts Association and community members to address the issue.
Nickell said Glisman is a new superintendent who might not understand that Yellow Springs is a “very liberal” and “accepting” community.
Gudgel did not return SPLC’s call.
Teen moms’ stories silenced
The staff of The Elk at Burleson High School was forced to throw out a yearbook article featuring two teen mothers when the principal said it did not accurately reflect the ideals and values of the community.
Editor in Chief Megan Estes and one of the girls featured in the article approached the school board in February to oppose the censorship, but Estes said The Elk’s March 1 deadline did not provide her enough time to go through the formal appeals process.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be published in the yearbook no matter how many steps we took, and I was so busy with our final deadline that I just couldn’t deal with it anymore,” she told the SPLC in an e-mail.
Estes said the yearbook article was written to show other students how the girls are coping with motherhood. She said Principal Paul Cash told her he felt the article “glamorized” the teen mothers’ mistakes.
Rachel Dearinger, Burleson’s yearbook and newspaper adviser, said that, “unfortunately,” Texas law allows Cash to review every page of the yearbook before it is published.
The Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier said school officials generally may censor items in school-sponsored outlets if they can present a reasonable educational justification for doing so, and if they have not traditionally allowed students to make final content decisions.
Estes is now fighting Cash on the censorship of a separate letter to the editor she sent to the school newspaper. She said Cash told her the letter regarding the “Day of Silence” could not run because it had a “political agenda.” “Day of Silence” is a national, youth-run effort to protest harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students.
Estes said her letter informed students of what it was and why it was important to her.
“If the problem of LGBT harassment is important to you, speak up,” Estes said in her letter. “Or rather, don’t speak at all. Be silent.”
Cash said he would not allow the letter because he felt it was advocating a student protest. He added that he is “not required to run every letter to the editor.”
“I would not run a letter to the editor speaking out against the ‘Day of Silence’ either — it’s basically a political ad for a political protest,” he said.
Cash said he understands letters to the editor are student opinions, but said there is a difference between a letter opposing censorship of the yearbook article — which he allowed — and a “call to arms for the students.”
Estes said Cash also recently censored a review of the movie “Juno,” because it was related to teen pregnancy. Estes said she could not understand why he would censor a PG-13 movie review, but allowed the review for R-rated “300.”
“I don’t feel comfortable responding to that,” Cash said when asked about the movie review. “I don’t feel like I have to justify everything that we do in our newspaper to you.”
reports, Spring 2008