CALIFORNIA – Despite a 23-year-old law protecting student\nexpression, censorship in the golden state has not become a thing\nof the past.
At Maricopa High School, yearbooks featuring artwork created\nby the yearbook adviser, who is also an art teacher at the school,\nwere censored after the school board deemed one of the works offensive.
The work was a picture drawn by adviser Deborah Leavitt at\nthe beginning of the Persian Gulf War. The picture shows a crumpled\nAmerican flag with a gasoline nozzle lying on top of it, soaking\nit with blood. Leavitt said the piece was intended as a protest\nof the United States’ economically motivated involvement in the\nwar.
The decision to censor the artwork came after the yearbooks\nwere published. Before they were distributed, one of the yearbooks\nwas passed around at a school board meeting, and an audience member\nalerted the board members to the picture. Because the picture\nwas printed in black and white–the original work was in color–it\nwas difficult to distinguish the type of liquid coming out of\nthe gasoline nozzle.
“The board thought that some people could interpret the\nliquid as being gasoline and advocating burning of the flag,”\nsaid Maricopa School District Superintendent Barry Lindaman. “People\nmight also interpret the picture as advocating using the flag\nto wipe dirt or grease off of a gasoline nozzle.”
But Ryan Winslow, a senior at Maricopa and editor of the yearbook,\nsaid he knew exactly what the work meant. He said that although\nLeavitt had cautioned him that some people might not understand\nthe work, he did not think it would be controversial. He said\nthe yearbook staff chose the work as a tribute to Leavitt.
“I found her work very inspirational,” Winslow said.\n”She is a very patriotic person and always expresses everything\nwith her whole heart.”
The yearbook staff was worried about how people would interpret\nthe work, however, and Winslow said they believed they had edited\nthe work out of the yearbook before it was published. But after\nthey received the yearbooks and realized the art had not been\nerased, they did not want to censor it.
Winslow said the yearbook staff was hurt by the board’s actions.
“I think the board quickly judged [the work] without examining\nit or asking anyone about it,” he said. “They misinterpreted\nit.”
Leavitt said Lindaman told her the yearbooks could not be distributed\nuntil the board’s problem with them was resolved. Leavitt said\nshe suggested three solutions: cutting out the entire page, placing\na label next to the work explaining its meaning or placing a label\non top of the work.
“I guess you could say I’m the one who proposed the censorship,\nbut I was not in favor of it,” she said.
Both Leavitt and Winslow said they would have preferred to\nplace a label explaining the work next to it instead of censoring\nthe work entirely.
“I was just finding a way to get [the students] their\nbooks,” Leavitt said, explaining that she wanted students\nto receive their yearbooks before the end of the school year.
Lindaman said a majority of the school board members said the\npicture was not appropriate for a yearbook. Lindaman told the\nyearbook staff that they needed to cover the picture with a sticker.
Winslow said he was “hurt, confused and angry” when\nhe found out the yearbooks could not be distributed because of\nthe artwork.
Lindaman said his decision to censor the yearbooks was justified\nunder California’s student free expression law.
The law states that “students of the public schools shall\nhave the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press\n… and the right of expression in official publications, whether\nor not such publications or other means of expression are supported\nfinancially by the school or by use of school facilities, except\nthat expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous,\nor slanderous … There shall be no prior restraint of material\nprepared for official school publications except insofar as it\nviolates this section.”
Lindaman said his actions were legal because the yearbook staff\nthought it had edited the picture out of the yearbook. He also\ncited the section of the California law prohibiting student expression\nthat is obscene, libelous or slanderous.
Lindaman said Leavitt’s work could be viewed as violating this\nsection of the education code for veterans’ organizations and\nfor “patriotic individuals and organizations, especially\nthose wanting to institute anti-flag burning or anti-desecration\nlaws.”
But Michael Small, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties\nUnion of Southern California, said Leavitt’s work does not violate\nthe section of the law Lindaman cited.”It’s not obscene,”\nSmall said. “It’s not libelous. It’s not slandering. At most,\nit’s offensive to p
Leavitt said she was not aware that California had a law protecting\nstudent expression in school-sponsored publications. Winslow said\nhis parents told him about the law, but he chose not to pursue\nlegal action.
Winslow said some students protested the censorship by peeling\nthe stickers, which were designed to be permanent, off of the\ncontroversial picture and placing them on the covers of their\nyearbooks.
Winslow plans to protest the school board’s actions in a different\nway: he said he is going to run for a position on the board in\nthe next election.\n