Calif. h.s. students file lawsuit against school officials for censoring student newspaper

CALIFORNIA — Student journalists at East Bakersfield High School have asked a Kern County Superior Court to order Principal John Gibson to allow the students to distribute a feature spread on homosexuality in the Kernal student newspaper. The students, with the help of the ACLU of Southern California, filed a lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order on Thursday.

Gibson suppressed a spread of five stories in the April issue of the Kernal that contained the names and quotes of gay and transgendered students and students who believe homosexuality is wrong. School officials said the censorship was done out of a concern for the students’ safety.

“It’s the principal’s responsibility to monitor student publications to ensure the articles don’t result in harm to the students,” district spokesman John Teves told the Bakersfield Californian.

But Kernal Editor in Chief Joel Paramo said he and the students feel the censorship is unjustified.

“I personally feel that he does have a reason to be concerned but there are other things he can do to prevent hate crimes toward gay students,” Paramo said.

According to an e-mail from adviser Randy Hamm, the articles in the spread include: interviews with openly gay students on campus about how they are treated; an in-depth interview with a gay student and her mother; interviews with a student and a local pastor who feel homosexuality is wrong; a story about the research that has been done about homosexuality; and a story that listed statistics on homosexuality in America and violence against gays.

Hamm said the principal saw the stories during the layout process, the night before the April issue was to be sent to the printer. The next day, Hamm said, school officials called the editors into a meeting and “convinced them to take all identifying information out of the stories,” he said. “In short to make it impossible to tell who anyone was who was interviewed.”

The editors voted by a slim margin to comply with Gibson’s request and removed the names. However, that night Gibson ordered the students to remove the entire piece, as he was “afraid any mention of the topic of homosexuality at that time would lead to violence on campus,” Hamm said. School officials alluded to recent instances of violence and harassment at the school but did not give specific details, Hamm said.

The April edition of the Kernal went to press without the Focus on Homosexuality spread, Paramo said. The students hope to publish the spread in the May 27 edition, the final issue of the year.

In January, a student editor at California’s Troy High School was fired after her principal said she violated state law for printing the names and quotes of three gay and bisexual students. A section of the California Education Code requires parental permission before students may be interviewed about their sexuality. Although state officials have said that this section does not apply to student journalists, Troy High School officials said Long violated the law by not asking the parents of the students for permission to interview them for her story on sexuality.

Hamm said the students obtained permission slips from the parents of every student quoted in the story. But when he presented these to Gibson, the principal was not swayed, he said.

“The principal pointed out that the parental permission would not protect the school from legal action if harm came to the students identified in the stories,” Hamm said.

Kernal editors and some of the students named in the lawsuit are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, Hamm said. ACLU spokeswoman Elizabeth Brennan said a hearing was held in Superior Court this morning. On Wednesday, May 25, a judge will rule on the students’ motion for a restraining order, which would force school officials to allow the articles to be published.

District officials did not return a call for comment.

Paramo said he and the other student editors are surprised and disappointed by the censorship, because the newspaper has always operated without intervention.

“I wish we didn’t need to file a lawsuit against the school to publish these stories,” Paramo said in an ACLU news release. “We chose to focus on sexual orientation in the paper so that the issues could be talked about in the open, not stuffed back into the closet.”

–By Campbell Roth

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