Students await decision from Calif. principal who confiscated papers

CALIFORNIA — Student editors at Eureka High School arewaiting for a decision from their principal on whether they will be allowed toreprint about 400 copies of the April Redwood Bark to replace copies theprincipal ordered removed from distribution bins.

The issue, distributed April 22, included a back-page feature about studentartist Natalie Gonzalez. Included with the story was a black-and-white,fantasy-style drawing by Gonzalez that included nude female figures.

Gonzalez said Editor in Chief Drew Ross and adviser Philip Middlemisswarned her that the drawing might be controversial, but she and the editorsdecided “we didn’t really want to let that stop us.”

“High school students should be treated as adults,” she said. “It shouldn’tbe taken too seriously because it’s just art.”

Ross, Middlemiss, Gonzalez and Art Editor Kirsten Springer said none ofthem had received any complaints about the article or illustration.

“Everybody I’ve talked to so far is supporting us,” Ross said. “They see itas art also, they don’t see it as an inappropriate picture.”

But at least a few students and parents were offended. Principal BobSteffen estimated he received about 10 complaints specific to the drawing,including students, parents and faculty.

And after school April 25, Steffen caught a few students removing papersfrom a distribution rack. Steffen said he told them stealing the papers wasunacceptable but that they were “adamant” that Gonzalez’s drawing wasinappropriate for a school paper. Fearing that other students would successfullysteal papers from other racks — and thus spark a conflict betweennewspaper staffers and students offended by the drawing — Steffen orderedall the remaining papers removed and recycled. About 400 of the paper’s 1,100copies were left at the time.

Steffen said he did not consider his order an act of censorship becausestudents had already had several days to take a print copy, and the paper wasallowed to be posted online.

“I was simply limiting the circulation of them in such a way that then kidswouldn’t be taking them off the racks,” Steffen said.

But newspaper staffers were upset to discover the papers had been taken.And, Steffen said, “in retrospect, I think I would have reacted differently,”perhaps by moving the papers to classrooms rather than confiscating them.

Steffen spoke to the journalism class Monday morning to explain hisdecision, and he met again Wednesday morning with Ross, Middlemiss and Springer.Middlemiss asked for an assurance that the paper would retain its autonomy,while Ross asked that the paper be reimbursed for — and allowed to reprint– the destroyed copies.

Steffen also raised the idea of forming a committee — which wouldinclude students — to review the district’s publications policy, clarifythe roles of students and administrators and “ensure that whatever we’re puttingout there is something we personally would be proud of.”California law doeslimit how much control administrators can exercise over student publications,however. The state Education Code makes students responsible for editing allcontent and bans prior restraint except for material that is obscene, libelousor likely to incite students to break laws or disrupt the school.

Steffen told the Student Press Law Center he probably would reimburse theRedwood Bark for the issues that were taken but reprinting the papersremained “a question mark.” He expects to make a final decision within the nextfew days. Steffen said he might approve reprinting papers if they were used insocial science classes in lessons about censorship, but returning them to thenormal distribution racks would simply invite more conflict.

Ross, however, said reprinting the papers is a non-negotiable requirement– and that students would consider taking further steps if Steffen deniesthat request.

“We want our paper back,” he said, “and we want the freedom that our paperhas back as well.”