California principal briefly confiscates, then returns student newspaper

CALIFORNIA — Last week, the Bear Creek High School student newspaper was confiscated by the school’s principal and then returned to the students who created it in a matter of hours.

The Bruin Voice’s leading headline — “Outdated safety plan leaves some wondering: how safe is BC?” — caught the attention of Principal Shirley McNichols, who decided to hold the papers that were scheduled to be delivered the following day.

“I just saw it and it just kind of made some red flags go up,” McNichols said. “I just wanted to get it checked out by somebody at the district and see if they felt the same way I did.”

McNichols took the papers around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and sent the newspaper’s adviser an email that afternoon citing California’s student free expression law and stating that the article was being reviewed because of concerns it “could cause substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

In an interview, McNichols said the article contained misleading statements and “inaccurate” quotes “from some employees who currently are unhappy in their positions for a variety of reasons” that she felt “could cause fear on the campus.”

Mikala Bussey, who wrote the story, said she stands by her work.

“Both myself and the rest of the staff work hard to make sure our information is as accurate as possible, and we are exceptionally careful when it comes to quoting the administration to make sure that we do not misquote them,” she said.

California is one of a handful of states that guarantee student free expression rights. Student journalists are responsible for selecting the content of student publications. Administrators can exercise prior restraint only when content is libelous, obscene or constitutes a “clear and present danger.”

McNichols said she does not feel the students’ rights were violated by its use in this situation.

“I do feel that … when we are concerned about an impact on the educational environment then we do have a cause for prior review,” McNichols said. “Safety is our number one concern here right now, as it is at all schools.”

Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, said McNichols’ actions went beyond prior review and that “doing anything beyond looking was prior restraint.”

Goldstein said the possibility of disruption is not enough cause to confiscate student newspapers. Prior review refers to an “eyes only” review of work prior to distribution; prior restraint refers to the removal of content or delay of distribution by someone other than the paper’s staff.

“To stop student speech, there has to be a clear and present danger of disruption,” Goldstein said. “There needs to be more than a probability, more than an imminent risk. Clear and present danger means disruption will occur unless someone acts.”

The students responded to McNichols’ email immediately with a letter they had already prepared defending their work, disputing her belief that the article would “incite panic” and citing censorship-related court cases.

Within minutes, the student editors received another email from McNichols stating they could retrieve the papers. McNichols said that after consulting with supervisors she was told to release the papers and did so.

The papers were distributed on Thursday, as originally scheduled. Even though she took the papers from the newspaper staff, McNichols said the papers “weren’t actually confiscated” because the distribution wasn’t affected.

“They weren’t due to be distributed until the next day,” she said. “They did not miss their distribution time.”

Bussey said she was “shocked” by McNichols’ actions and thinks that administrators were simply embarrassed by the story.

“[The story] does point out a lot of ways they haven’t really done their job to the best of their abilities if you consider student safety part of their job,” she said.

Kathi Duffel, the newspaper’s adviser, said she’d never faced such an incident in more than 20 years as an adviser. But the students’ response was inspiring, she said.

“I think that’s why I continue to serve as the adviser, is because I am always amazed at how strong the students are; they don’t get rattled, they mobilize, and if you lead them in that direction they will be very strong,” Duffel said. “If they are informed and aware of what their rights are, they will fight for those rights and they will fight hard.”

There was no panic when the paper was distributed, McNichols said.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.