Calif. paper reaches deal with principal who confiscated copies

CALIFORNIA — Student editors at Eureka High School will not bepermitted to reprint the April issue of the Redwood Bark — whichthe principal ordered removed from the racks three days after it was published — but they will be included in the reformation of school publicationpolicies.

The controversy revolved around an April 22 back-page feature about astudent artist, Natalie Gonzalez, which included one of her black-and-white,fantasy-style drawings that depicted nude female figures.

Principal Robert Steffen had custodians remove and recycle about 400 copiesof the paper April 25 after he caught several students taking the papers fromthe distribution bins. He reprimanded the students for attempting to steal thepaper, saying it was unacceptable, but they argued the drawing was inappropriatefor a school paper. Steffen said he thought there was a possibility of furtherconflict.

In early May, Editor in Chief Drew Ross insisted the issue be reprinted,but later that month he came to an alternate agreement in a meeting withadministrators. Steffen offered to pay for the newspaper’s next issue, whichprints June 10. Steffen also agreed to send a written apology to the homes ofEureka High School students and to start out next school year with a meeting todetermine a new policy for the paper to use as a guideline.

Ross said he plans to research his rights over the summer and hopes to comeback next fall prepared with suggestions for a policy the students and theadministration could agree on. But Ross said he expects the administration will attempt to form arestrictive policy that may not work in the students’ favor.

In his letter to parents and students released Monday, Steffen explainedthe situation and expressed remorse for the hastiness of his actions.

“In retrospect, it would have been better to simply pull and save thecopies, removing them from public distribution and arrange to meet with thenewspaper staff to talk about how to best deal with the pulled 400 or so copiesof this edition,” Steffen wrote in the letter.

Steffen also alluded to possible changes in publication policies, sayingmany parents and others believe the administration and newspaper adviser shouldexercise prior review. He said the issue of prior review needs to be clarified,but “the goal of the Redwood Bark staff is that they will be allowed toremain autonomous and operate free of administrative review beforepublication.”

Prior review is a complicated issue but in this case could be consideredretaliatory and therefore illegal, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of theStudent Press Law Center.

“If a school imposes prior review in retaliation for a specific editorialcontent decision that the school disagrees with, that may well violate the FirstAmendment,” LoMonte said. “The First Amendment says a school can’ttake any action that would chill the legitimate expression of free-speechrights, and putting in place a new review requirement that didn’t existbefore would certainly cause students to censor their own speech.”

But Ross said he does not think the school will implement prior review, andhe thinks future policy changes could have a positive outcome as long as theadministration is willing to allow the students to contribute meaningfully.

For now the matter is at a standstill, Ross said, but he is glad theadministration is willing to take up the policy reformation next schoolyear.

“We only have nine days of school left, I don’t want to whip out anunorganized policy in that amount of time,” he said.

Phone calls to Steffen and Superintendent Gregg Haulk were notreturned.