Wash. principal upset by letters G-A-Y in newspaper word search

WASHINGTON — Theappearance of the letters “G-A-Y” in a word search was nearly enough topersuade the principal of Port Angeles High School not to allow distribution ofthe Timberline student newspaper.

Student editors and the adviser of the Timberline are protesting Principal Garry Cameron’s initialdecision to prohibit students from passing out the newspaper because of theletters’ placement.

According to editors, the word “gay” appearedunintentionally in the page 12 word search of their May 22 print edition. It wasnot one of the listed words in the 625-letter puzzle.

The letters that make up the word appear diagonally near thebottom left corner.

A few pages later in the newspaper, the students wrote anarticle on President Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, inwhich the word “gay” is used multiple times. Cameron did not instruct thestudents to remove that story.

According to Robert Stephens, incoming editor of the Timberline, Cameron did not say anythingabout the word search in his initial review of the newspaper — prior to thestudents printing 1,000 copies — but objected right before they planned todistribute.

“He said that ‘gay’ is a slang term and that it could offendpeople,” Stephens said. “It just seemed like he was looking for something tocensor.”

Though Cameron changed his mind and allowed distributionafter student protest, he initially asked the editors to go through each copyof the paper by hand and black out the letters making up the word.

He has also since required the students to change the puzzleonline.

“It’s extremely difficult for me to see how anyone couldtake that painstaking time and effort to find something as small andunintentional as that word,” Timberline adviserThomas Jay said.

Jay said this latest content dispute is just the latest in aseries of censorship instances that have spanned throughout the entire schoolyear.

Among other things, Stephens said the students have not beenallowed to run stories on sexual assault and the practice of “sexting.”Additionally, the students had to pull a cover about drug use at the lastminute because Cameron expressed concerns.

“We haven’t been able to print pertinent, interestingstories that matter to people,” Stephens said. “Because he couldn’t findanything else wrong with this edition, he had to find something.”

However, Cameron maintains that he has not overstepped hisbounds.

“I support the board policy that’s written,” he said,explaining that the school has seen multiple instances of bullying of gay studentsand that, without proper context, the word may encourage further bullying.

Cameron disagreed with the students’ claim that he has madesubstantial changes to the newspaper, saying instead that most of his feedbackhas been focused on developing proper grammar and writing techniques.

“I would love there to be an issue of the newspaper where Ididn’t have to make a change,” he said.

According to Port Angeles School District policies governingstudent publications and the distribution of materials, Cameron has theauthority to prevent publication of materials, provided that he can show thecontent would cause a “substantial disruption” to school operations or containsillegal materials.

Student Press Law Center consulting attorney Mike Hiestanddisagreed with Cameron’s belief that he has followed PASD policy.

“It just seems to me that the principal has overreacted andmisconstrued the idea of what a free press is really about,” he said. “The ideathat the word ‘gay’ might be offensive in 2012 is troubling.”

Hiestand added that the presence of the “substantialdisruption” language in the board policy makes it likely that the Timberline would receive protection under the legal standard set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent CommunitySchool District. Tinker isconsidered the most permissive standard governing school-sponsored studentpublications in high school.

While the policy also requires the principal to providewritten reasoning if he chooses to prohibit certain content, Jay said Cameronhas “never been very strong about explaining his rationale or communicatingwith the staff.”

As a first-year adviser, Jay said he has been “shocked” atthe amount of censorship of the Timberline.

“It’s just been one thing after another,” he said.

For their part, students say they are prepared to see thisthrough until its end.

“We’re ready to take this to the school board if we haveto,” said Bre Howell, who designed the word search by hand for the Timberline. “Ideally, we’d like to seeprior review completely removed.”

Jay said he fully supports his students’ efforts movingforward.

“How can you expect anyone to work under these types ofconditions and truly develop a rapport with their students?” Jay said. “Iwouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to work under these conditions.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer