Students face prior restraint after controversial 'sex issue'

CALIFORNIA– High school students in Whittier say their principal is not allowingthem to publish the June issue of their student newspaper as punishment for their May issue, whichfocused on sex.

The May issueof The Freelancer, the studentnewspaper at La Serna High School, included a center spread devoted todiscussing student opinions on sex. The spread included a sexually suggestivephoto (not of students), an interview with a pregnant student and a survey that,among other things, found that 41 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds reported beingsexually active.

The package also included a word search that included sex-related terms on aseparate page.

The ”sex issue,” as it has come to beknown, elicited complaints from faculty and parents alike who co-editor in chiefClaire Webster said were particularly offended by the word search andphotograph.

”We were expecting a reaction,” Webster said.

”We wanted the students to think about the risks involved in [sex], but wedidn’t expect a lot of people to be as angry as they were withit.”

Martin Plourde, principal at La Serna High School, did notreturn repeated calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Webster said inthe days following the May issue, Plourde came and spoke toThe Freelancer staff, saying because ofthe issue he would not allow them to publish for the rest of the year. She saidhe reconsidered when they told him the planned topic of the June issue was”unsung heroes.”

Webster said Plourde agreed to let thempublish the issue, as long as he reviewed the content prior to publication andapproved of the subject matter. However, when the paper was ready to print,Plourde would not let it go to press.

According to an e-mailco-authored by Webster and co-editor in chief Sergio Hernandez, Plourde wouldnot allow the June issue to be printed due to anews story explaining thatThe Freelancer‘s adviser, HollyVance, was asked to resign over the May issue and, in fact, would not beadvising the newspaper in the fall.

Vance declined tocomment.

Plourde also allegedly took issue with Webster’swritten response to a letter to theeditor regarding an article about Christianity in the March issue.

Thestudents claim Plourde said they could not print the issue because it

”went beyond the scope” of the unsung heroes theme. But Webster saidthe students never intended the June issue to consist only of stories aboutunsung heroes.

”We told him the next issue was going to focuson unsung heroes, which we meant to be the theme page,” Webster said.”And he repeatedly called himself a professional journalist, so we thoughthe knew what we meant.”

After being told by Plourde that theirJune issue would not print, the students appealed to Sandra Thorstenson,superintendent of the Whittier Union High SchoolDistrict.

Thorstenson did not return repeated calls and e-mailsrequesting comment.

Hernandez said in an e-mail that he and Webstermet with Thorstenson Thursday and that she said the June issue’spublication was contingent on Plourde’s approval.

”She… maintained that the censorship of our June issue was not a question ofwhether or not it was obscene, libelous, likely to incite disruption, etc., butthat it went against the agreement we had with Mr. Plourde that our May issuewould, as punishment, be ‘our last issue,”’ Hernandez said inan e-mail.

California is one of six states to enact laws protectingstudent free expression beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled asprotected speech for student journalists. The Californialaw explicitly prohibits priorrestraint of student publications unless the material is obscene, libelous,slanderous or if it incites disruption of the orderly operation of the school orstudents to commit unlawful acts.

Webster said the students have notyet decided if they want to pursue legal action, but said they have not ruled itout.

”We haven’t sat down and discussed what we want todo,” Webster said.

Webster said Thorstenson seemed generallysympathetic to the students’ claims but said she preferred not to re-visitthe controversial ”sex issue.”

”She seemed prettyadamant on the whole ‘let’s move on and be friends’ thing,” Webster said.