Students claim Calif. principal dropped newspaper because of story

CALIFORNIA — Four Simi Valley High School students arespearheading a campaign to bring back their school’s newspaper after itwas dropped — a decision they say was made by the principal because of acontroversial article she attempted to censor. Now seniors SamanthaSiegel, William Hillstrom, Marissa Lussier and Randi Pealer are trying to turnthe newspaper into an on-campus club.“The newspaper meant a lot toall of us,” said Siegel, a former staff member at the school’snewspaper, The Voice. “If it hadn’t been for the last[edition], I think there would still be a paper.” Thecontroversy with the school principal began last spring when the newspaperreported that cheerleaders from the Simi Valley, Calif., school weredisqualified from a national competition at Disneyland after they were caughtdrinking alcohol in a hotel room. Principal Jan Britz heard about thearticle before its publication and asked that the staff publish the issuewithout it. “[Britz] told us we should present the school in thebest possible light,” Hillstrom said. When staff members refusedto withdraw the story, the two students who wrote the article were called toBritz’s office and told the paper would not go to press if the articleremained, Hillstrom said. Andrew Wolverton, the newspaper’s then-adviser,contacted an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, who told him they had theright to publish the article. The California Education Code includesrules that help uphold students’ First Amendment rights, said Terry Francke,general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento. Schools may exercise prior restraint only to prevent obscenity, defamation ormaterial which presents a clear and present danger to school safety, Franckesaid.Despite the principal’s protests, the newspaper published thearticle. In June, the administration informed the students that the newspaperclass would not be offered because of low enrollment. The journalism classusually had about 20 students while other classes usually had between 25 and 30,Hillstrom said. In the past, school officials would move students into thenewspaper class to meet the enrollment requirements, but they did not do thatthis year, Hillstrom said. “I think it just became that [theadministration] couldn’t control us,” Lussier said.Hillstromsaid the newspaper gained a reputation for covering issues that were unpopularwith the administration. Topics covered by The Voice included thestudent dress code and the war with Iraq. In addition, Siegel said lastyear the administration required the students to change the name of the paperfrom The Simi Spiel to The Voice to make the paper, they weretold, sound less “gossipy.” The students ran an edition with bothnames in protest. Britz, who did not return phone calls ore-mails seeking comment for this story, told the Ventura (Calif.)County Star that the newspaper class was cancelled because of lowenrollment, not any particular article. She said she asked for the cheerleadingstory not to run because she wanted to protect the team members’privacy.“Let’s say you have a group of 10, and five peopleare OK with talking about the incident,” Britz said. “It stillreflects on the whole group.”Britz also told the Ventura CountyStar she would like to see the student newspaper return but added that manyschool events are already covered in the yearbook and sports accomplishments arelisted in game programs. Kathy Scroggin, superintendent of the SimiValley Unified School District, declined to comment for thisstory.Although the journalism class may not be on the schedule, the SimiValley students say they are still determined to find an outlet for their news.In order to create the newspaper as an on-campus club, the students needan adviser. Wolverton, the former adviser, left Simi Valley High School afterthe end of the school year to take a position at Moorpark College. However,Wolverton said he offered to advise the newspaper this year, but theadministration did not accept. Recruiting efforts at the school havealso been unsuccessful. Many teachers have declined to help because they arealready in charge of other clubs or just don’t know how to advise anewspaper staff, Hillstrom said.The students said they want to continuethe newspaper because it not only provides them with an opportunity to gainvaluable experience, but it also offers them a forum to express issues that areimportant to them.“[A newspaper] gives the students avoice,” Hillstrom said. “It’s a wonderful way for thestudents to communicate with the administration.”