Calif. paper under scrutiny after running masturbation article

CALIFORNIA — Student journalists at Claremont High Schoolfear self-censorship will mar their reportage after their principalbegan a practice of prior review because she felt "blindsided"by an article on masturbation in a features spread on sex-relatedstories.

Community members who objected to references to masturbation– including slang euphemisms — and jokes about Vice PresidentDick Cheney’s first name in the Feb. 22 edition placed angry callsto the administration, editor Renee Ovando said.

"They thought that the administration was responsiblefor the paper, they didn’t come to us, so the principal wantedto implement a policy of prior review, but mostly on controversialsubjects, just to give her a heads-up on anything that would maybebe controversial," Ovando said.

But Ovando added she felt that principal Carrie Allen trustedthe Wolfpacket staff’s judgment and would not be "pullingstories left and right." There was no official written policyestablished, just an agreement between the paper and the schooldistrict attorney that Allen could review issues and be kept abreastof potentially controversial topics.

Allen said she had to respond to the complaints and while shepersonally objected to the beginning of the masturbation story,she would have defended the students’ right to publish it.

Co-editor Hayley Tyler said her biggest fear is that studentswill start to censor themselves.

"We feel that [the prior review] infringes on our journalisticrights," Tyler said, "not so much legally, because whatshe’s doing is legal, and we understand that, but it can causethe chilling effect where students would be more likely to censorthemselves they might be less likely to criticize policies oradministrative action that we might otherwise have brought intoquestion."

The April 5 issue of the Wolfpacket included an articleand editorial on the prior review, and an outpouring of lettersfrom students, faculty and parents supporting the newspaper staff.

Claremont history teacher Mike Callahan lauded the studentsfor their coverage of controversial issues and stated his "chagrinto hear a parent accuse them of moral turpitude on the one hand,and cowardice on the other, in their attempt, as it was put, to’hide behind the First Amendment and freedom of speech.’ Imaginethat, to be accused of ‘hiding behind’ that which was won withblood and tears; to be accused of ‘hiding behind’ those very rightsthat I encourage them to safeguard and defend."

Ovando and Tyler said that while the Wolfpacket staffwas upset by Allen’s increased vigilance of the newspaper, theyare not going to officially fight the prior review policy.

"[Allen is] not really asking for anything specific,"Tyler said. "Right now it’s not being enforced too strictly,it’s pretty lax, so we’re still writing about issues that we feelare pertinent to teens."

The National ScholasticPress Association honored the Wolfpacket with a 10th-place award in a competition for similarly sized newspapers ata national convention held in Phoenix last month. The staff had submittedthe controversial Feb. 22 issue as its entry.

California has a student free-expression law that prohibitsadministrative censorship in most cases. The law allows priorreview, but makes prior restraint illegal except in very limitedcircumstances.

Read the California Student Free Expression Law in our Law Library.