NEW MEXICO — AlejandroTeran submitted his editorial cartoon for the November issue of Bernalillo HighSchool’s The Basement without athought that it would trigger a First Amendment debate on censorship.
But after Principal Keith Cowan prohibited Teran’s cartoonfrom running in the New Mexico high school paper, it did just that, spawning aschool-sponsored debate on the merits of press freedom for studentpublications.
The cartoon in question features two female studentswatching a Bernalillo football player get tackled. One student turns and asksthe other, “So when does basketball season start?”
The image got the ax because it did not adhere to theschool’s perception of the paper’s mission, Cowan told local station KOB-TV.
“Though we do want the paper to talk about upcoming eventsand news articles that may not always be positive, I don’t believe it’s thereto downgrade other students or put students against each other,” he said.
Cowan did not return calls for comment.
Teran said the cartoon was not intended to degrade fellowstudents, but to comment on what classmates were already talking about — asub-par football season.
“My idea behind the cartoon was that, well first over, ithad to be funny, and it had to be about something that was going on in the moment,”Teran said. “I wasn’t trying to point out anything that wasn’t already known.You go around the school and hear left and right that our football team is notdoing well. I mean, it wasn’t a secret.”
The Bernalillo Spartans went 3-7 this season.
Basement adviserNina Quintana said she was taken aback by the controversy.
“I knew that there would be students that would have beenupset by the cartoon and was prepared for that, as was Alejandro,” she said.“We were prepared for letters to the editor. It didn’t occur to me that itwould be censored.”
Teran showed the cartoon to administrators prior topublication as a “heads-up” because he thought some students might not take itwell, Quintana said.
The school has never before told the staff to removeanything, and student editors have always made content decisions, she added.
When the students were informed the administration would notallow the cartoon to run, they were “outraged,” Quintana said. She thensuggested they invite school officials to debate the issue.
“I wanted the students to have a positive experience andlearn how to support their objections with facts … rather than just retaliatenegatively, which often is received with negative repercussions,” she said.
If the goal was to limit exposure for the cartoon, thecontroversy created the opposite effect. TheAlbuquerque Journal ran the cartoon in its pages, and one of its reportersserved as a judge on the debate panel.
Cowan argued that the school had a right to bar the cartoonbecause it provides most of the funds and supplies for the paper, according toKOB-TV.
The panel ultimately came down on the side of the students,who cited court cases such as Tinker v.Des Moines. But that victory had no impact on Cowan’s decision, a frustratingfact for Teran and the other newspaper staffers.
Teran said he has friends on the football team and showedthe cartoon to them before he sent it to the paper. He did not receive anynegative reactions from them.
“After a while, people started to hear about the cartoon(and) they started asking me about it,” he said. “And when I showed it to them,they were surprised, not in a bad way. They were surprised that the cartoon wascensored.”
Student Press Law Center attorney Adam Goldstein said the principal’smisinterpretation of the cartoon — that it was “laughing at the team, ratherthan with them” — is the problem, not the cartoon itself.
“If the principal hadn’t censored the cartoon, it would havebeen a chuckle for the students and, at worst, gentle ribbing for the footballteam,” Goldstein said. “By censoring it, he’s made it national news that thefootball team isn’t doing so well. So if his goal was to protect the footballteam, I’m not sure how he could have done worse.”
Bernalillo has no written student publications policy, butQuintana has submitted the Student Press Law Center’s model student mediapolicy and hopes the school board will adopt it, she said.
Basement reportersnow are working on debate coverage that includes information on censorship andstudent publications, Quintana said.
“We want to make sure that people understand that justbecause the district pays for supplies or start-up costs, it does not give theadministration a ‘green light’ to censor the student press,” Quintana said.