Students resist mandate to publish statement

\nCALIFORNIA — Student journalists are resisting a mandate\nfrom the Oakland Unified School District to print a message in\ntheir high school newspapers stating the district’s compliance\nwith federal nondiscrimination rules, pointing to a California\nlaw that prohibits school officials from dictating the content\nof student publications.

The federal Title IX rules and regulations policy lists local\nnewspapers, newspapers and magazines operated by recipients of\nTitle IX (in this case the school), and memoranda or other written\ncommunications distributed to every student and employee of the\nschools as possible vehicles for promoting awareness of the school’s\nTitle IX policy.

But a California Education Code provision enacted by the state\nlegislature says student editors of official school publications\nshall be responsible for determining the content of their publications.\n

According to Fremont High School newspaper adviser Steve O’Donoghue,\nthe district sent a letter containing the nondiscrimination policy\nhome to all students’ families. The Oakland Tribune, a local newspaper,\nalso published the Title IX message in a story about tightened\ncompliance measures in the area.

The school district, however, is requiring high school student\nnewspapers to print the message in every issue. Oakland school\ndistrict advisers and student journalists feel that this measure\nis not only unnecessary, but is also a violation of their right\nto determine the content of their newspapers.

“This seems to me a sorry excuse for interpreting a statute\nor regulation to bend it this far,” said Terry Francke, an\nattorney with the California First Amendment Coalition. “If\nit’s the kind of regulation I’m familiar with, it simply says\nyou have to publicize your policy and here are some options.”\n

O’Donoghue agreed with Francke’s assessment.

“My view is that these are optional things,” O’Donoghue\nsaid. “They’re saying let everybody know in the best way\npossible. The district takes it as let everybody know every single\nway listed or else.”

Barbara Thomson, the school district’s Title IX compliance\nofficer, met with Oakland school district newspaper advisers early\nin November to inform them of the district’s new policy. According\nto O’Donoghue, Thomson told advisers that because the anti-discrimination\npolicy’s message is a good one, there is no justification for\nnot including it in the paper. She also noted that newspapers\noften give up space for advertisements, O’Donoghue said, but she\nrefused to pay to run the message in the paper as an ad.

Thomson said Title IX’s federal dissemination policy “supersedes”\nthe students’ ability to determine the content of their newspapers.\n

In the meeting, the advisers pointed out that the publication\nof the policy was not their newspaper staffs’ obligation, but\nthe district’s obligation. They also argued that they would have\nno reason to print the message repeatedly as they are not in a\nposition to discriminate because they do not hire employees. \n

Disputing Thomson’s point about advertisements, the advisers\nsaid the message was not the same as an advertisement because\nnewspapers were being asked to print it for free. When their students\nprint an advertisement, they exchange space in the newspaper for\nmoney they can spend on publication costs. If the newspapers were\nto follow the district’s instructions, students would have to\ngive up space for their work in exchange for nothing.

“Nobody is against the statement,” O’Donoghue said.\n”The issue is that under California law … students decide\nthe content.”

But even in states where there is not a state law protecting\nstudent press rights, the Student Press Law Center could find\nfew cases where school districts have forced their student publications\nto print the Title IX anti-discrimination message.

Furthermore, Title IX has been in effect since 1972. The Oakland\nschool district has never before required distribution of the\npolicy in this manner.

“What’s driving this is that they’re under a three-year\nreview for compliance with all state and federal programs,”\nO’Donoghue said, “so they’re dotting all the I’s.”

Of the five newspapers whose advisers attended the meeting\nwith Thomson, only one planned to print the message without protest.\nThe principal of Oakland High School is forcing the school’s newspaper,\nThe Aegis, to print the message in its upcoming issue-even\nthough adviser Paul August does not believe the principal has\na legal right to do so.

“Legally, I’m being directed to do an illegal act,”\nAugust said. “Politically, when I’m directed to do something\nby a bureaucracy of dictators, I have to avoid being set up for\ninsubordination.”

In 1991, a school district in Colorado-a state that also has\na freedom of expression law for students-attempted to force high\nschool student publications to print a similar message. After\na school newspaper contested the district’s ruling, the U.S. Department\nof Education decided that the district did not have to force student\njournalists to print the message to be in compliance with Title\nIX.

Thomson, however, maintains that federal code requires all\nstudent publications printed under the district name to print\nthe policy.

“[The newspaper] is an Oakland Unified School District\npublication,” Thomson said. “If it was independently\nfunded it would be the avant-garde press, but it’s not. It has\nthe district name and it’s a district high school.”

Francke disagreed and said the district’s obligation to distribute\nthe policy should not trump students’ free-expression rights.\n

“The district itself does not have First Amendment rights,”\nFrancke said. “The district could be full of people who don’t\nbelieve in Title IX, but the government can tell a subordinate\ngovernment agency that it must publish the policy. That says nothing\nabout student newspapers, [over] which, at least in California,\nstudents have editorial autonomy”