Oregon high school students ask school to return confiscated papers

OREGON — A Portland high school’s newspaper is fighting to distribute copies of its first issue that were confiscated by administrators who didn’t like that the paper published a screenshot of a profane tweet.

Editors distributed copies of The Bronco Blaze’s first issue Oct. 11, which included an article about two Twitter accounts created in August about Parkrose High School. One, @RatchetParkrose, tweeted negative and hurtful comments about students and the school. The other, @ParkroseBased, tweets positive comments about the school and the students.

A newspaper staffer first realized papers were being confiscated, said Mick Sprague, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief. The staffer saw a school employee enter a classroom and take a stack of papers. When the staffer asked her why she was taking the papers, she was told, “I have to take these. They have bad words in them,” Sprague said.

After that, the paper’s editors began looking into other instances of confiscation, said Max Denning, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief. They discovered about 200 copies were missing, mainly from a newspaper box at the front of the school. The monthly paper prints 1,000 copies.

When they asked administrators about the missing copies, student editors were told the papers were pulled because of the @RatchetParkrose tweet, which said “The entire class of 2013 is fuck ups. Y’all are going nowhere in life. #tobehonest.”

The newspaper’s staff decided to run the tweet without blurring the profanity in order to give the school and the community an accurate representation of what was going on, Denning said. The screenshot appears on page 2. In the article that begins on page 1, the paper quoted from the tweets but replaced letters with asterisks.

“We thought it was important to have that shock factor that goes into writing the word,” Denning said. The tweet that the paper quoted was one of the cleanest tweets from the cited Twitter account, added Tyler Sirokman, the article’s author.

The student editors first met with Principal Jared Freeman last Tuesday. Freeman told them he did not have the ability to give the papers back until he heard from the school’s attorney, Denning said. Later in the day, Freeman told the adviser the papers would not be returned because the school had the legal right to pull them.

Last week, Denning, Sprague and Sirokman met with Superintendent Karen Gray. In a memo given to the students at the meeting, the school’s attorney cited several court cases that the school contends permit confiscation of the papers, including Bethel School District v. Fraser and Lopez v. Tulare Joint Union High School District.

In Fraser, the Supreme Court gave schools the ability to punish a student’s vulgar or offensive speech at a school assembly. In Lopez, a California appellate court gave the school the authority to censor a student’s documentary because it used “four-letter words.”

Fraser does not apply to Oregon student journalists, though, because Oregon has a law that establishes greater First Amendment rights protecting student publications, Goldstein said. Lopez does not alter Oregon students’ rights, because it applies only to one district of California.

Oregon’s Student Free Expression Law protects student media from censorship as long as the contents are not illegal or disruptive. Advisers or teachers can teach professional standards of English or journalism, but that does not mean they can censor, Goldstein said.

“The idea that Fraser could apply in a state that provides free speech guarantees, it’s like a doctor writing a memo saying the brain is in the colon,” Goldstein said.

In the meeting, administrators offered the students a compromise: Blur out the word and reprint the paper, Denning said. The students ultimately decided against taking the compromise because they believe they were still justified by the law to publish the article, he said.

Denning and Sprague have asked the superintendent to return the papers. In an email, she responded stating she was disappointed in the newspaper’s decision and that the next step would be look into the journalism program. The two editors both said it felt like a threat.

“I thought her reaction to our choice was a little bit blown out of proportion, and it sounded like she was fairly angry and wanted to take it a step further than what were thinking,” Sprague said.

“It’s a picture from the Internet,” Denning said. “It’s not like we ran F-you, F-this, F- the school – and we could run that if we legally wanted to, but we know that doesn’t adhere to journalistic standards.”

Freeman and Gray both declined to comment, saying that the district’s attorney, Brian Hungerford, was fielding all calls. He is on vacation until Oct. 29 and did not return calls.

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.