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Wash. principal upset by letters G-A-Y in newspaper word search

June 4, 2012

WASHINGTON — The appearance of the letters “G-A-Y” in a word search was nearly enough to persuade the principal of Port Angeles High School not to allow distribution of the Timberline student newspaper.

Student editors and the adviser of the Timberline are protesting Principal Garry Cameron’s initial decision to prohibit students from passing out the newspaper because of the letters’ placement.

According to editors, the word “gay” appeared unintentionally in the page 12 word search of their May 22 print edition. It was not one of the listed words in the 625-letter puzzle.

The letters that make up the word appear diagonally near the bottom left corner.

A few pages later in the newspaper, the students wrote an article on President Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, in which the word “gay” is used multiple times. Cameron did not instruct the students to remove that story.

According to Robert Stephens, incoming editor of the Timberline, Cameron did not say anything about the word search in his initial review of the newspaper — prior to the students printing 1,000 copies — but objected right before they planned to distribute.

“He said that ‘gay’ is a slang term and that it could offend people,” Stephens said. “It just seemed like he was looking for something to censor.”

Though Cameron changed his mind and allowed distribution after student protest, he initially asked the editors to go through each copy of the paper by hand and black out the letters making up the word.

He has also since required the students to change the puzzle online.

“It’s extremely difficult for me to see how anyone could take that painstaking time and effort to find something as small and unintentional as that word,” Timberline adviser Thomas Jay said.

Jay said this latest content dispute is just the latest in a series of censorship instances that have spanned throughout the entire school year.

Among other things, Stephens said the students have not been allowed to run stories on sexual assault and the practice of “sexting.” Additionally, the students had to pull a cover about drug use at the last minute because Cameron expressed concerns.

“We haven’t been able to print pertinent, interesting stories that matter to people,” Stephens said. “Because he couldn’t find anything else wrong with this edition, he had to find something.”

However, Cameron maintains that he has not overstepped his bounds.

“I support the board policy that’s written,” he said, explaining that the school has seen multiple instances of bullying of gay students and that, without proper context, the word may encourage further bullying.

Cameron disagreed with the students’ claim that he has made substantial changes to the newspaper, saying instead that most of his feedback has been focused on developing proper grammar and writing techniques.

“I would love there to be an issue of the newspaper where I didn’t have to make a change,” he said.

According to Port Angeles School District policies governing student publications and the distribution of materials, Cameron has the authority to prevent publication of materials, provided that he can show the content would cause a “substantial disruption” to school operations or contains illegal materials.

Student Press Law Center consulting attorney Mike Hiestand disagreed with Cameron’s belief that he has followed PASD policy.

“It just seems to me that the principal has overreacted and misconstrued the idea of what a free press is really about,” he said. “The idea that the word ‘gay’ might be offensive in 2012 is troubling.”

Hiestand added that the presence of the “substantial disruption” language in the board policy makes it likely that the Timberline would receive protection under the legal standard set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Tinker is considered the most permissive standard governing school-sponsored student publications in high school.

While the policy also requires the principal to provide written reasoning if he chooses to prohibit certain content, Jay said Cameron has “never been very strong about explaining his rationale or communicating with the staff.”

As a first-year adviser, Jay said he has been “shocked” at the amount of censorship of the Timberline.

“It’s just been one thing after another,” he said.

For their part, students say they are prepared to see this through until its end.

“We’re ready to take this to the school board if we have to,” said Bre Howell, who designed the word search by hand for the Timberline. “Ideally, we’d like to see prior review completely removed.”

Jay said he fully supports his students’ efforts moving forward.

“How can you expect anyone to work under these types of conditions and truly develop a rapport with their students?” Jay said. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to work under these conditions.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer

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