Despite pushback, Fla. high school journalist plans to pursue story about medical marijuana

FLORIDA — A student journalist says she wants to write about medical marijuana for her Florida high school’s magazine. But staff and other students would rather she didn’t.

Abbey Laine, a reporter for the Bagpipe at Lakeland High School, said her article would have outlined medical marijuana issues and how they affect students. She wanted to write about it to help students understand a proposed state constitutional amendment that would legalize some medicinal uses of the drug.

“I came to my journalism teacher about it and gave (the idea) to her, of course, and she reviewed it,” said Laine, a senior. “She immediately came down with the answer of ‘no.’”

Laine was told the story highlighted “drug usage” and therefore “lacked decency,” she said.

When reached by phone, journalism teacher Janell Marmon said student editors did not want such material published. She then deferred questions to the school board’s legal counsel, who also emphasized that the decision not to pursue the story was made by students.

This isn’t Laine’s first go at trying to report on marijuana. Earlier this year, Laine had also pitched the idea to the Bagpipe’s then-editor-in-chief, who vetoed the article on similar principles.

Students “understand that I want to write it,” Laine said. “The only reason that they’re saying no is that my teacher is saying no.”

Laine then went to Principal Arthur Martinez, who she said was also “very dismissive of it.”

Martinez could not be reached for comment, but he told The Lakeland Ledger that it comes down to what the teacher wants.

“It really depends on what the teacher wants to print in their classroom,” he told the Ledger. “I leave it up to them as to what they want to print.”

Wes Bridges, Polk School District’s attorney, said the magazine is meant to be a marketing tool for the school.

“The school newspaper at Lakeland High School is no longer an instrument that carries a broad range of topics,” Bridges said. “For some time now, it has been geared at marketing school … events.”

Bridges couldn’t say whether the change in the paper’s focus was a decision made by administrators or students. (Laine said the school implemented the changes.)

But the issue over Laine’s story pitch is all hypothetical, Bridges said, because Laine hasn’t yet submitted an article. If she did though, “it’s certainly appropriate for it to be reviewed,” he said.

Under the precedent set by the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, schools may censor student-run publications that have not been established as a forum for student expression if they have a reasonable educational justification.

“I believe that Hazelwood is still good law and leaves school and school districts with a certain degree of editorial control,” Bridges said.

Still, Laine said she’s passionate about this issue because she knows students (and their parents) who have epilepsy or have survived bouts with cancer. It’s important that people know there are alternative options to traditional medicine, she said. The legalization of medical marijuana could greatly affect these lives, she said.

Speaking from personal experience, Laine said she was diagnosed with cancer when she was 2 years old.

“It’s just a little personal reason why I’m so motivated to do it,” Laine said. “I did have problems with chemotherapy, and I still do have side effects from chemotherapy.”

More than that, though, Laine said she is driven by her feeling that she’s been censored by Lakeland High employees.

“Our censorship has gone far enough that students can’t even know about the world around them,” Laine said. “If high school is basically about readying students for the world, then why is the world being censored and kept from them in our school paper?”

Until her message can be delivered, Laine said she’ll continue pushing back until the article appears in print or on the Bagpipe’s website.

“I’m not going to stop until it does,” Laine said.

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.