Calif. school censors story about teacher’s relationship with underage movie star

CALIFORNIA — After months of sifting through courtdocuments, two high school student journalists learned in May that their articleabout a teacher’s rocky breakup with a Hollywood actor would not bepublished because the administration said it was an invasion of privacy.The Venice High School students, Naldy Estrada and Julio Robles,co-wrote the article for The Oarsman based on a civil lawsuit filed byhealth teacher Jacqueline Domac against actor Edward Furlong, who she said she begana “quasi spousal” relationship with 10 years ago when he was aminor. The students are crying censorship, claiming that the public had a rightto know about the relationship. But Principal Jan Davis killed the article inMay, insisting it was necessary to protect the privacy of the teacher.In their article, the student journalists included details from alawsuit Domac filed that sought damages from Furlong after he fired her as hismanager in 1998. The students also reported on her 1995 misdemeanor convictionfor disturbing the peace, which was later expunged from her record. Thestudents chronicled Domac and Furlong’s personal relationship, which alsowas reported in a Los Angeles Times article about the censorship.According to the court documents the students obtained, Domac met Furlong on theset of “Terminator 2” where she worked as his stand-in. Domac saidin her lawsuit that they moved in together in 1993 and she became his manager in1995, reported the Los Angeles Times. When Estrada and Robleswent to seek Principal Davis’s comment for the story, the students saidthat she told them the piece was intrusive, and if it ran, it would damageDomac’s reputation. At the meeting between the students and Domac, Davis,a school district attorney and a union representative, Domac gave the students aletter in which she threatened to sue them for libel and slander if the articlewas published. The student journalists said the community deserves toknow about Domac’s relationship with a minor because she teaches sexeducation in the school. They said they came across the idea for a storyon Domac while researching information about a Web site she had launched in aneffort to curtail junk food sales at school. While looking for background aboutDomac, the students typed her name into, and articles mentioning herrelationship with Furlong surfaced. Estrada said pictures and stories about thecouple were well-documented in magazines, such as Entertainment Weekly,in the mid-1990s.Estrada and Robles worked with Los Angeles Timesreporter Glenn Bunting, who volunteers as a journalism tutor at the school.Together, they investigated Domac’s official court documents at LosAngeles Superior Court. Davis ordered the student journalists to submitthe article for prior review. Oarsman adviser Nancy Zubiri, Bunting andmedia law attorney Susan Seager reviewed the article for libelous or slanderousmaterial before turning it in to the principal.“I thought [thestudents] did an extremely good job in presenting the information. The studentsonly worked with information from court documents,” said Zubiri, a formerreporter for the Oakland Tribune. “They did have other informationfrom magazine articles that we felt had some important information for thestory, but based on the recommendation of the lawyer, we did not put thatinformation in because it was not as privileged the way court documentinformation is.” Seager said she believes the students’First Amendment rights were violated. She is assisting the students pro bono,but has not filed a lawsuit against the school.According to Seager,under California Law and the First Amendment, the media, including studentmedia, are permitted to write stories based on public court documents. TheCalifornia Student Free Expression Law grants students more protection againstadministrative censorship, than was provided by the 1988 U.S. Supreme Courtdecision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Under Hazelwood, the FirstAmendment allows administrators to censor many school-sponsored studentnewspapers if they can show they have a legitimate educational reason for doingso.Seager said the right to publish the information is protected fromlawsuits, so long as the documents are fairly and accurately described, whichshe believes the Oarsman article did.“The suppression ofthe news story violated the school district’s own policy as well asCalifornia state law and the First Amendment,” she said. “This is avery important story about a teacher, who has an important job [and] had a verypublic relationship with an actor, according to court documents, which sheherself filed.”The school board’s district policy statesthat an article may not be censored “merely because it iscontroversial” but also says that a school newspaper may not publishmaterial which “violates the right of privacy.” According to Seager,the school district attorneys advised Davis that she should decide for herselfwhether or not to run the article.Davis did not return several phonecalls requesting comment, but she told the Los Angeles Times that theinformation in the article was inapplicable to Domac’s position at thehigh school. “I don’t think that anyone’s business,public or private, should be in the school newspaper,” Davis said.“As a district employee, all staff and teachers are entitled to privacy. Idon’t believe it’s an issue of censorship. I might be thepublic’s right to know but, as the principal, I don’t thinkit’s the student newspaper’s place to tell thatstory.”The school district attorney’s office refused tocomment on the censorship issue. The district would not provide the name of theattorney who consulted with Davis about the article. After Estrada andRobles’s article was censored, the students wrote an editorial expressingtheir discontent with the censorship of the article and the reasons why theyfelt the information in the Oarsman article was important.Ultimately, Estrada and Robles’s editorial also was censored byDavis. Instead, the headline “The Oarsman is Censored” appeared onthe newspaper’s final issue of the year. The article was written by theOarsman opinion editor and addressed the issue of censorship, why theOarsman editors believe the story should have run and Davis’sjustification for the censorship.Currently, Estrada and Robles areworking on revising their editorial, which the Los Angeles Times hasexpressed interest in publishing.Seager said she is unsure whether thestudents will file a lawsuit because Estrada, who will be attending Santa MonicaCollege in the fall, has already graduated. Robles will be a junior next schoolyear. Seager asserts that the students are more interested in making thedistrict aware of its own policy and change it. Estrada said that as areporter, she feels obliged to stand up for the FirstAmendment.“Sometimes I think, what if [the administration were to]do this again? They hurt us and violated our rights,” Estrada, who wantsto be a journalist, said. “This shows [the administration] that studentsdon’t have any rights. As reporters I think we should do something aboutit.” Estrada and Robles continue to be disappointed in thebehavior of the administration, but confident there have been some lessonslearned.“The administrators at Venice High attempt to teach us todo the right thing, to be open-minded to be fair, and to be unbiased,”Estrada said reading a line from their unpublished editorial. “It isunbelievable to us that they did the opposite.” Robles adds,“[As a reporter], I’ve learned a lot from this. You have to beresponsible.”

Read Estrada and Robles’s commentary piece in the Los Angeles Times