Calif. paper that ran flag-burning photo, editorial shut down

CALIFORNIA — A high school newspaper in Redding is facing thechopping block after students chose to publish a photo of a burning flag and aneditorial about freedom of expression in the paper’s last issue of the schoolyear.

Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard said the photo and editorialcemented his decision to eliminate the paper next school year, a decision hesaid he already was considering due to budget constraints, according to theRedding Record Searchlight, a local newspaper.

“The paper’s done,” Woollard told the Record Searchlight. “There is not going to be a school newspaper next year.”

Woollard called the photo and editorial embarrassing. Shasta Union HighSchool District Superintendent Mike Stuart, a Vietnam veteran, said he finds thephoto and editorial offensive. But he said he understands the need for aschool newspaper and is trying to find an alternate way to keep the paper atShasta.

“It may not be print, we may do it online,” Stuart told the Student PressLaw Center. “We’ll see if there’s ways to do it without the cost.”

California law prohibits censorship except for material that is obscene,libelous or likely to incite students to break laws or disrupt the school. Statelaw also bars administrators from retaliation based on student speech.

“If the subject matter of paper was something they considered in theirdecision, then the entire decision is in violation of state law, no matter howmany other reasons they may have considered,” said Adam Goldstein, attorneyadvocate with the Student Press Law Center. “There is no legal protection for a’little bit’ of censorship, or a decision that is ‘only slightly’ in violationof student rights.”

The editorial, written by Connor Kennedy, discussed freedom of expression,specifically flag burning.

“Those who would assume that the act of burning the flag is unpatriotic,could not be more mistaken,” Kennedy wrote. “The day an American cannot burn theflag, the day he cannot denounce his country, is the day America is no longerfree.”

Kennedy, who graduated last week, told the Associated Press on Tuesday thathe chose the topic because they had recently discussed flag burning in hisAmerican government class.

“I’m deeply saddened, and I find it terribly ironic a high school newspaperwould be shut down for exercising free speech — particularly when thecurriculum being taught was that this was free speech,” Kennedy told theAP.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1989 case Texas v. Johnson thata demonstrator who burned an American flag could not be criminally prosecutedbecause his act was protected speech under the First Amendment.

Stuart said he found the editorial patronizing toward veterans and thatalthough the ideas Kennedy referred to had merit under the First Amendment, hefelt the article, and its timing, were self-indulgent.

“I would’ve felt better about it if it had run a month ago so the studentwho wrote it would have had to defend his editorial to the students and thecommunity,” Stuart said. “It’s kind of like he stuck it to the school on the wayout. “