NEW YORK — A cartoon that the principal at Ithaca High School said is “obscene and not suitable for immature audiences” was removed from the student newspaper by the newspaper adviser on Jan. 28, a week after the principal ordered the adviser to approve all newspaper content prior to publication.
The newspaper, which has existed for over 100 years, operates as an extra-curricular, non-school associated publication.
The cartoon would have appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of the student newspaper, The Tattler. It depicted a teacher pointing her ruler towards a blackboard on which eight stick figures were posed in different sexual positions. The words “Health 101” were written above the classroom door next to the teacher. The cartoon would have accompanied an article entitled, “How is sex being taught in our health classes?”
Robert Ochshorn, the newspaper’s editor in chief, said the newspaper issue had a “big blank spot” in its center spread where the cartoon would have appeared. Ochshorn said the newspaper staff disagreed with Wilson’s decision.
“We feel [the cartoon is] pretty innocuous and provides commentary on the accompanying story,” Ochshorn said.
Principal Joe Wilson’s order that the adviser approve editorial content was part of the guidelines for the paper that Wilson established after community members responded to a recently published restaurant review that they perceived as “racist” and “sexist.” Wilson presented his guidelines in a meeting with student newspaper editors following the incident.
On Jan. 31, Ochshorn appealed Wilson’s decision to have the cartoon removed and his new guidelines. Wilson then issued Ochshorn a written letter on Feb. 9, citing the guidelines as support for his decision to have the adviser, Stephanie Vinch, remove the cartoon. Ochshorn appealed to the Ithaca City School District on Feb. 16 and is awaiting the district’s decision.
Wilson’s guidelines are based on the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which limited high school students’ press freedom protections. In addition to Wilson’s mandate of the adviser’s pre-approval, he states that the adviser has the right to “change, edit or remove content that would substantially interfere with the District’s work or impinge upon the rights of other students; or is inconsistent with the legitimate pedogogical concerns of the District.”
Ochshorn said the staff was very upset with the guidelines, because though the newspaper is entirely student-run, staff members did not have input in Wilson’s policy.
“We agree that we need guidelines, but we were not involved at all in the process of creating these guidelines,” Ochshorn said. “They were just presented to us and we were told that we could ask questions but the guidelines themselves were not up for discussion.”
Ochshorn stated two reasons for his appeal in his letter to Wilson. He said the newspaper staff “does not believe that the cartoon is obscene” and “opposes the guidelines under which the cartoon was censored, that is, under a so-called ‘Hazelwood standard.’” Ochshorn asked Wilson to replace his guidelines with the Student Press Law Center’s Model Guidelines for student media. He also asked Wilson to reverse his removal of the cartoon.
Under the Student Press Law Center’s Model Guidelines, material that is “obscene as to minors” is unprotected from administrative intervention.
The SPLC guidelines define “obscene as to minors” when “the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the publication, taken as a whole, appeals to a minor’s prurient interest in sex; the publication depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct such as ultimate sexual acts (normal or perverted), masturbation and lewd exhibition of the genitals; and the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
Ochshorn said in his appeal to Wilson that, based on that definition, the cartoon is not obscene, and states that the cartoon lacks “graphic delineation of sexual organs,” is “devoid of erotic content” and is a “comic (artistic/political) commentary”.
Wilson responded in his written answer that the “graphic” cartoon could “potentially force emotionally immature students to be confronted with difficult adult issues prematurely.”
Calls to Wilson were deferred to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Bill Russell. Russell did not return calls seeking comment.
Ochshorn said that he is more interested in fighting Wilson’s guidelines than the cartoon’s removal, largely because the newspaper has traditionally been run by students.
“I think this was the first time our adviser had ever touched our computer–to delete this cartoon,” Ochshorn said. “We print the proofs and our adviser generally has seen them and given advice, but this is not a paper where the adviser is doing a lot.”
In Ochshorn’s appeal to the district, he included former newspaper adviser Eileen Bach’s explanation of how she ran the newspaper.
“The editor in chief ran all meetings,” Bach said. She attended meetings and “offered suggestion or acted as referee as needed, but sat with the audience and not in front with the editors, and there was significant discussion regarding all stories,” she said.
Ochshorn said that if the district’s decision is not in the newspaper’s favor, the staff will continue protesting the guidelines, in court if necessary.
“We’ve talked about this as an editorial group and none of the editors feel that they can work on the paper under these guidelines,” Ochshorn said. “If we couldn’t correct [the guidelines] we’d have to go to some sort of independent publication. But we’re trying as hard as we can and we’ll take it as far as we can to restore The Tattler to its past glory.”
–By Britt Hulit