Principal censors newspaper over articles on birth control, tattoos

TENNESSEE — A high school principal seized all 1,800 copies of a student newspaper last week over objections to a column about birth control and an article on body art.

Oak Ridge High School Principal Becky Ervin objected to a column intended to inform students who were sexually active about birth control measures available to them, said Oak Leaf Editor in Chief Brittany Thomas. The column quoted a local health center physician as saying that teenagers do not need parental consent in Tennessee to obtain birth control information.

Ervin had no problem with an accompanying column encouraging abstinence, Thomas said, adding that Oak Ridge’s sex education program is abstinence only.

The principal also had qualms with an article featuring photos of students showing their tattoos and body piercings, Thomas said.

Superintendent Thomas Bailey declined to comment on the situation beyond a press release issued this afternoon, but he did tell The Knoxville News-Sentinel last week that the article featured a photo of an unnamed student baring a tattoo that her parents did not know about, which concerned administrators.

“I have a problem with the idea of putting something in the paper that makes us a part of hiding something from the parents,” he told the regional paper.

Thomas said Ervin does not normally review the paper, but looked at this issue after it was placed in teachers’ mailboxes the day before its scheduled distribution. After reading the paper, Ervin had it taken from distribution points, classrooms and individual students.

"We’re trying to compromise [with administrators] to get the paper out because it has ads with dated coupons," Thomas said.

For now The Oak Leaf will publish without the article on birth control and without the names of the students pictured in the tattoo feature, she said, but that does not mean members of the Oak Leaf staff are giving up the fight to publish without administrative censorship.

"I think we need the same rights as everyone else," Thomas said. "We’ve always been responsible – this wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had been released as we intended."

But Bailey has stood by Ervin’s decision in local press reports.

"The action of the principal was totally appropriate,” Bailey told The Knoxville News-Sentinel. “I would have done the same thing as a principal all the way to the end, whatever the end may be. We have a responsibility to the public to do the right thing. We’ve got 14-year-olds that read the [student] newspaper."

Thomas said that students and community members voiced their opinions on the matter at a school board meeting Monday night and that the majority of the speakers condemned the censorship. She said the paper without the birth control article and the names of the tattooed students should come out tomorrow or Thursday.

First Amendment advocates say the case is a perfect example of administrators censoring content solely because they disagree with it.

“Here students were attempting to cover an important issue in a balanced, accurate way,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “It’s sad the school is determined to prevent these students from practicing good journalism.”

by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer