Montana school district’s recall of controversial “Free the Nipple” edition of student newspaper met with criticism

MONTANA — When a Montana high school newspaper published topless pictures on the cover of its January edition, in an attempt to discuss the “Free the Nipple” gender equality movement that is sweeping the nation, district officials recalled the issue immediately.

The controversy led to the school principal, who reviewed the issue before publication, being suspended without pay for three days and the newspaper adviser receiving a formal reprimand. The student journalists are currently fighting for their newspaper to be republished in the University of Montana’s student newspaper Kaimin with an editor’s note warning readers that the content may be offensive.

The photos accompanied an editorial titled “Free the Nipple” in the Wire produced by Willard Alternative High School students. The editorial discussed the difference in perception between male and female toplessness and questioned society’s assumption that gender defines whether it is appropriate to expose one’s chest.

The newspaper’s cover featured five topless women and one topless man with their nipples hidden by red dots and faces cropped out. But inside the edition, page eight featured a photo of a topless man and woman with their nipples bare and fully exposed.

“The breast’s main function is to nurture, not to cater to the male gaze,” editorial author Chase Boehmler wrote. “American culture is so backwards that it is more offensive to use a body for it’s intended purpose, than it is to fetishize it.”

In an interview-based section following the editorial, a breastfeeding mother answered, “I think it’s kind of fucked” in response to negative opinions associated with public breastfeeding.

The edition also contained a separate piece within the editorial section titled, “Misconceptions SLAMMED,” highlighting derogatory statements made to breastfeeding mothers in the comment sections on parenting blogs. One of the misconceptions read, “I can’t just whip my dick out and feed my wife at a restaurant, so why should you get to whip out your tit and feed your baby?”

Within 30 minutes of the newspaper’s distribution, the Missoula County Public Schools district recalled the edition and began investigating whether it violated district policy.

The investigation found the Wire had violated Board Policy 3221, which states school-sponsored publications may not contain material “libelous, obscene, or profane” nor cause “a substantial disruption of the school.”

Missoula County Public Schools released a statement Monday defending officials’ decision to recall the newspaper, stating it was inconsistent with school board policy because of the nude photos and “lewd and vulgar” language within the edition, specifically “fucked” and “dick.” The district requested the Wire revise the issue by removing the photos and explicit language and then seek republication.

“The editorial Free the Nipple is well reasoned and provides an avenue for reasonable discourse on a controversial topic,” the statement said. “It is the use of partially nude women perceived to be students that violates board policy.”

But Lisa Waller, the Wire faculty adviser, said the individuals in the photos are not students of any high school and are over the age of 18.

Keaton Alexander, co-editor of the Wire, said all of the models were consenting volunteers who signed confidentiality contracts.

Instead of revising the issue and republishing it within the school, Waller and the student journalists are in talks with the University of Montana’s student newspaper, the Kaimin, which might reprint the Wire’s entire issue.

Many in the school and larger community are disappointed by the district’s decision to recall the edition, arguing it reinforced the double standards surrounding gender equality.

“The message [of the article] was merely proven by the controversy,” Alexander said. “The ideas could certainly remain if reprinted without the images, but the point would be significantly dulled.”

He said without the nude photos, the editorial would be reduced from an intellectual action of activism to mere commentary on the issue.

Jacquelyn Davis, a student teacher at Willard, said the district overlooked the issue of gender equality, and thus played a part in reinforcing sexism.

“The language that the district tried to censor was meant to emphasize and challenge discrimination against women,” Davis said.

She said the recall robbed readers of the opportunity to learn about and challenge a relevant example of sexism, while also silencing the students’ voices.

The January edition of the Wire took nearly three months of research and 10 weeks of writing, Alexander said, as well as several days of design work and editing to produce a final version.

“The reaction to our finished product proved to be a larger forum to discuss the issue, and therefore had value,” Alexander said. “But the censorship resulted in our work towards a stimulating product largely arbitrary.”

Waller, Willard Principal Jane Bennett and the Wire staff deliberated for several days before deciding to publish the edition. Waller said the district pulled it in a “knee-jerk reaction,” within a half hour of its distribution and without hearing any complaints.

Bennett did not respond to the Student Press Law Center's requests for comments. 

The district cited legal precedent in Supreme Court cases Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Bethel School District v. Fraser andHazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier to support its decision, stating the right of schools to “maintain the culture of the learning environment and support speech in student publications that aligns with the District’s curriculum.”

Superintendent Mark Thane said the district used the Hazelwood precedent in particular to determine whether the edition violated board policy during its investigation. The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling gave administrators the right to censor student publications if they can demonstrate a reasonable educational justification and if the censorship is viewpoint neutral.

“One of the most important points of Hazelwood is making certain [the publication] is suitable for the audience it is intended for,” Thane said. “The Wire is a school-sponsored publication directly tied to the curriculum.”

Though the photos were disruptive to the educational functions of the district, he said, they were not considered obscene under the policy.

Thane said the “Free the Nipple” article itself was well written, and he fully supports the students exploring controversial topics, but without the topless photos and inappropriate language.

Alexander said the legal ambiguity used to censor the Wire was “entirely unjust.”

“This would never happen to a publication run by adults,” he said. “The editorial was believed to be unvaluable from the start, because the voice from which it came is societally considered to be ill-informed and naive.”

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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