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Two Houston area schools censor stories about gay students
Administrators claim content was too controversial for schools to handle
May 24, 2002

TEXAS -- Articles about homosexuality were pulled from student publications at two Houston area high schools when administrators deemed the content too controversial.

The student newspaper at Hastings High School in Houston and the yearbook at Cinco Ranch High School in Katy both had planned articles addressing the struggles of being a homosexual student. After administrators at each school reviewed the contents of the publications, student journalists were told they would have to cut the articles.

Publication of the Bear Facts at Hastings High School was delayed several weeks before principal David Holmquist censored a centerspread article about the stereotypes and abuse that gay and lesbian teens face every day.

The article was originally slated for the April edition of the newspaper. Administrators objected to it and asked the paper to change the names of the students who were interviewed. Despite those revisions, Holmquist pulled the article because, he said, it was too controversial for the school.

Editor Askari Mohammad said the paper ended up combining the April and May editions as a result of the censorship debacle. In the combined edition that was distributed Thursday, the Bear Facts ran an editorial criticizing the administration for pulling the story.

"They're giving us vague reasons as to why the story cannot run," Mohammad said, "but they aren't giving any possible solutions or what we can do. They aren't specifying what's wrong with the story -- if any thing at all -- from their point of view."

When asked why he pulled the story, Holmquist answered: "controversial." He refused to elaborate.

"It's to my benefit that I can pull some [articles] and not pull others," Holmquist said. "It's my choice, it's my job to do that."

Mohammad, who stands behind the story, said this is not the first time the paper and administration have not seen eye-to-eye. The paper has criticized the school's use of Social Security numbers on student IDs as a possible means of identity theft and pressured the school to change a policy in which students were suspended for having spiked hair.

"We're an award-winning staff with a great adviser [Dianne Smith] who's been in the field of journalism for 26 years," Mohammad said. "Even the people who wrote the story -- David Rosen and Christina Tran -- it's not like they don't know what they're doing. They are experienced staffers and great writers."

With the last issue finished and the school year winding down, Mohammad said the paper would push its case before the public. Houston's ABC affiliate has covered the story and posted the censored article on its Web site along with a message board where viewers can comment. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 350 comments had been posted -- most in support of the students.

Holmquist said he does not regret censoring the story even though it gained much more attention than the Bear Facts staff ever imagined.

"None of this changes my mind," Holmquist said. "I have the support of the superintendent and the support of the school board. I feel very comfortable with my decision and I'd do the same thing."

At Cinco Ranch High School, located in a Houston suburb, the censorship developed from unusual circumstances. The Panorama yearbook had already been printed and was set for distribution on May 15 when co-editor Robbie McMillin and his staff discovered the printing company forgot to make several corrections and mixed up the color scheme.

The publisher of the yearbook agreed to make the changes and reprint 1,800 copies. In the meantime, however, administrators asked McMillin to make several other changes, including cutting some content they found too risqué.

"Everyone at the school hated the book and a bunch of complaints started coming in about things to change in the book," McMillin said. "It was good for us though. It was a nice chance to correct some stuff we messed up on."

McMillin said he had no problem correcting a few errors and deleting stories about how to lie and how to have a séance. But when principal Lowell Strike said McMillin's story about "coming out" had to be pulled as well, he drew the line.

"We didn't put up a fight with anything else," McMillin said, "but one of things they wanted out was my story because they apparently got some complaints about it from parents."

McMillin said Strike told him that the yearbook was not a platform for the column, which was about his struggle coming to terms with his sexuality and talking to his mother about it. After doing some research about censorship, McMillin said, he asked Strike on Tuesday to change his mind, but the principal would not budge. McMillin said the book was then sent back to the printer.

"He said it was OK for the newspaper. He said if people don't like the newspaper it's easier to throw away," McMillin said. "Since the yearbook has a longer shelf life, he didn't feel that was the platform for my story."

Strike did not return phone calls left at his office.

As for McMillin, he does not want to delay the yearbook any longer, but he is not giving up the fight. His father is a lawyer and he is considering legal action.

"I don't want this book to be stalled. I don't want to be selfish about it," McMillin said. "The struggle to get my story in the book is already over. But I'm worried that people can complain enough and have the power to take away the ability of students to express themselves."

© 2002 Student Press Law Center

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