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Papers at L.A. high school confiscated over V-Day spread

February 19, 2008

CALIFORNIA -- Several students were suspended from Grover Cleveland High School Friday for wearing T-shirts that opposed the confiscation of their newspaper, Le Sabre.

According to Editor in Chief Richard Edmond, Thursday's issue was confiscated because a front-page headline included the word "vagina," and a medical diagram of the vagina's anatomy accompanied the article.

Edmond said for the Valentine's Day issue, he and fellow staff members wanted to bring awareness to the 10th anniversary of V-Day, an annual observance dedicated to ending violence against women. In support of V-Day, activists often stage performances of "The Vagina Monologues," which raise awareness and funds for anti-violence groups.

The Los Angeles Times reported that, once angry teachers notified Principal Bob Marks of the newspaper's content, he had nearly all of the 4,000 papers confiscated.

"They never justified [their reasoning]," Edmond told the Student Press Law Center. "They just said it was in bad taste. But by California high school journalism law, we didn't do anything wrong."

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the SPLC, said California's Student Free Expression Law was designed to offer students more protection.

"In California, the education code requires administrators to demonstrate that what they want to censor is illegal or creates a clear and present danger of disruption," Goldstein said. "I'm sure the paper was provocative, but provocative isn't enough."

Marks told the Times he believed that distributing Thursday's edition "could be a potential disruption" to the school day. He also said he received numerous phone calls from parents who were offended by the paper.

Jean Brown, superintendent for L.A. Unified School District No. 1, told the Times she agreed with Marks' actions.

On Friday, Edmond said members of the journalism staff and other students wore T-shirts with the words "My Vagina is Obscene" in reaction to the censorship. Several students who did not change were sent home.

"My deans said, ‘We understand there's violence against women, but we have to send you home because that's our job,'" Edmond said. "I don't think there should be a ‘but.'"

The administration now is attempting to set up a review board for the paper, which would consist of the editor, the adviser, administration and parents. Edmond said he plans to speak with the staff on whether to resist a review board.

The paper usually arrives at the school the day before distribution, Edmond said, but this month's issue arrived a day late due to printer problems. Once the staff started distributing, the papers were taken away and even grabbed from students who already had a copy, he said.

The adviser is present when the staff decides story ideas, Edmond said, but she does not necessarily check all content. Coleen Bondy, English teacher and newspaper adviser, was aware of the front-page spread, he said, and did not see a problem with it.

"Not that many people read our paper," he said. "I thought that maybe some teachers would say something or write a letter to the editor, but I didn't think it would be that serious."

Marks told the Times that the school plans to hold a student-teacher forum next week to discuss the issue of violence against women.

Edmond said the students who read the article told him they learned a lot.

"On Valentine's Day, more date rapes take place than on any other day of the year," Edmond said.

Calls to Marks, Bondy, Brown and Assistant Principal Cindy Duong were not returned by Tuesday afternoon.

By Kathleen Fitzgerald, SPLC staff writer

© 2008 Student Press Law Center

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