CALIFORNIA — Principals at two different high schools have censoredtheir schools’ student newspapers in recent months, despite a 23-year-oldlaw that grants free-expression rights to students in the Golden State.
The principal of Nogales High School, in the Los Angeles suburb of LaPuente, confiscated all 2,400 copies of the Feb. 24 issue of The Scroll becausehe objected to an article in the newspaper about “backyard wrestling.”
According to the article in The Scroll, backyard wrestling “takesplace on homemade wrestling rings or on trampolines in back yards. Mostparticipants include kids ranging [in age] from ten to twenty.” The articlediscussed different forms of backyard wrestling, including “hard-core”matches that allow wrestlers “to use weapons, such as metal chairs or bats.”
In a memo to the journalism students about his decision to confiscatethe newspapers, principal Marv Abrams said, “Our campus newspaper doesnot exist as a forum for irresponsibility and nonsense. We don’t printstories about teenage Nazis, hard drinking seniors, or people who hit eachother over the head with ladders.”
Abrams also cited the photo of two boys wrestling on a mattress as areason why he confiscated the newspapers.
“We are not going to run pictures of people on mattresses, I don’t carewhat they’re doing,” he said in the memo.
Abrams did not return repeated phone calls made to his office by theReport.
Keith Smith, editor of The Scroll, said he saw nothing wrong withthe article. He said he is worried that this situation may set a precedentfor future censorship of the paper.
Under California law, principals may review school-sponsored publicationsprior to distribution, but have limited power to censor articles. Accordingto Section 48907 of the California Education Code, “there shall be no priorrestraint of material prepared for official school publications” unlessthe content is obscene, libelous, slanderous, likely to create a clearand present danger by inciting students to commit unlawful acts on schoolpremises or violate school regulations, or likely to cause a substantialdisruption in the school day.
In addition, the law states that “school officials shall have the burdenof showing justification without undue delay prior to any limitation ofstudent expression.”
According to Smith, the only justification Abrams gave the newspaperstaff for confiscating the Feb. 24 issue was the memo citing six “problemswith the mattress article.”
“Basically, [Abrams] said the story was nonsense,” Smith said.
Under California law, however, nonsense is not a justification for censorship,and Smith said he is working with an attorney to try to resolve the situation.
Meanwhile, about 75 miles west of Los Angeles, the principal of RioMesa High School in Oxnard censored a student newspaper article about theschool district’s teen-parenting program in March.
According to Selby Cull, editor of the Spartan, administratorstold the newspaper staff that the article, titled “When Children Have Children,”was “inappropriate.” The article described the experiences of several teen-agemothers in a teen-parenting program at Rio Mesa High School. The programallows adolescent mothers and fathers to attend school on a special scheduleand provides day care for their children. Several of the teen-agers interviewedin the article said they had not used birth control prior to becoming pregnant.
Cull said principal Barry Barowitz told her the article portrayed theteen-parent program as supporting students’ poor decisions, which was notthe image school officials wanted to send out to the community. Cull alsosaid Barowitz objected to the baseball diamond graphic used to illustratethe article, which was part of a feature section on sex. Cull said Barowitzcalled the graphic sensationalistic.
Barowitz did not return repeated phone calls made to his office by theReport.
Cull said Barowitz agreed that nothing in the article was obscene, libelous,slanderous or any of the things prohibited by California law, but she saidBarowitz insisted he had the right to censor the article because it wasinappropriate.
“I was really enraged and hurt,” Cull said. “I just couldn’t believethis was happening to us. We read about this stuff all the time in journalism,and our teacher was always telling us, ‘Know your rights, know what youcan publish and what you can’t publish,’ but we always brushed her off,like that’s ever going to happen to us. But then suddenly it did. We werejust kind of shocked.”
In April, Cull was planning to meet with the superintendent of the OxnardUnion High School District. She said she ultimately wants to be able topublish the article in the Spartan.
“We thought it was an appropriate article,” Cull said. “We thought itwas a well-written article. We still do.”
In the meantime, students at Camarillo High School, also in the Oxnarddistrict, published the censored article in their own student newspaper,the Stinger.