Settlement reached in East Bakersfield High School case

CALIFORNIA — A Kern County judge is expected to sign a settlement filed Nov. 16 that will end a censorship lawsuit between East Bakersfield High School student journalists and the school district.

In August 2005, student journalists at The Kernal, the high school’s student newspaper, had planned to publish a series of articles that consisted of interviews with several students about the treatment of gay and transgendered students in school, as well as an interview with a student and local pastor who thought that homosexuality is wrong. But school officials prohibited students from publishing the stories, because they said they were concerned for the safety of the students named.

The students collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other groups to file a lawsuit against the school administrators claiming the censorship was unjustified.

The stories were eventually published in October 2005, but students continued on with the lawsuit to get a policy change.

ACLU of Southern California Attorney Christine Sun said the students were prepared to go to trial in September. But shortly before the trial date, the school adopted a new, more favorable student publications policy.

“That’s what the students wanted,” Sun said. “They are thrilled because they’ve made a real positive difference for other students.”

Former Editor in Chief Maria Krauter said she is “ecstatic” about the case’s outcome.

“It’s not only a victory for me or the staff of the paper when [the lawsuit] started, it’s a victory for the staff now and all student journalists in Kern County,” Krauter said.

Under the new policy, the high school will continue to abide by the California Education Code, which states that all students have the “right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press” (California is one of six states that has a state law protecting student expression). School officials also agreed to use “all practical alternative options” before resorting to censorship.

Kernal adviser Randy Hamm said he is proud of his students for “forging ahead” and for standing up for their right to publish.

“I hope this new policy will make a difference for student journalists all over the state,” Hamm said. “It’s extremely significant.”

Hamm also said he was “surprised” at Principal John Gibson’s reaction to the article because Gibson had not censored an article in the last 15 years.

“I didn’t have any reason to believe that any of the gay students so identified would be injured,” Hamm said. “I, as a teacher, would have known about it.”

Gibson was unable to be reached for comment.

Hamm said he anticipates little change in his students’ newsgathering process under the new policy.

“They will continue what they’ve been doing,” Hamm said.

Sun said she hopes the school has already begun implementing the new policy.

“It puts schools on notice that they really have to do something other than turn to censorship,” Sun said. “Censorship cannot be used as the easy way out.”