Montana high school principal appeals her three-day suspension for approving student newspaper spread

MONTANA — In an attempt to challenge gender stereotypes and sexualization of the female nipple, a high school newspaper published an edition containing nudity and “lewd language” that resulted in the three-day suspension of the school principal — now she is fighting back.

On Monday, Willard Alternative High School Principal Jane Bennett filed a notice of appeal to the Board of Trustees of Missoula County Public Schools. Bennett is appealing her suspension without pay after serving it in early February. Bennett reviewed the Willard Wire’s January “Free the Nipple” edition before its publication, when it was immediately recalled by the district. The student newspaper adviser received a formal reprimand.

The newspaper’s cover featured five topless women and one topless man with their nipples covered by red dots and faces cropped out. But within the pages of the edition, page eight featured a photo of a topless man and woman with their nipples fully exposed.

The edition also included an interview-based section where a breastfeeding mother used profanity in response to negative connotations associated with public breastfeeding.

After conducting an investigation, the district ruled the edition had violated Board Policy 3221, which states school-sponsored publications may not contain material “libelous, obscene, or profane” nor cause “a substantial disruption of school.”

Superintendent Mark Thane said the district used the precedent from the 1988 Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave high school officials the right to censor school newspapers that are not public forums, as long as they can provide a “reasonable educational justification” and the censorship is viewpoint neutral.

Though MCPS board policy gives school administrators the option to use prior review of its student publication, it does not mandate it. This is the first time a MCPS high school principal has been suspended for content published by its student newspaper.

In a similar MCPS case in 2012, the Hellgate High School Lance published a Valentine’s Day edition that featured an editorial in defense of pornography and an article urging classmates to experience with bisexuality, but no one was disciplined. Then-principal Russ Lodge apologized for the content of the paper after receiving complaints, and the Board of Trustees revised its policies of what is prohibited to include profane language, as well as libelous and obscene material.

Bennett has not publicly apologized for her role in its publication.

Unlike the special edition of the Lance, the Wire did not receive any public backlash after its distribution of its January edition. Instead, many in the school and larger community were disappointed by the district’s decision to recall the edition, arguing it reinforced the double standards surrounding gender equality.

Elizabeth Kaleva, legal counsel for the board, said though the Lance also contained inappropriate content, that is about where the similarities between the two cases end.

“The main difference, discipline-wise, is that the principal at Hellgate did not review and approve the Lance before it was published,” Kaleva said. “And in this case, Principal Bennett reviewed and approved the Wire before it was published.”

She said there were other factors that played into the administration’s decision to implement a three-day suspension, and they will discuss those at an upcoming Board of Trustees meeting.

Bennett will appear in front of the board to present her information and for the district to respond to her appeal. She said she will be reserving her reasons behind appealing the discipline for the meeting.

Her attorney, Paul Leisher of the Paoli Law Firm, said he and Bennett are reserving comment until the proceedings in front of the Board of Trustees have concluded.

The meeting has not been scheduled yet, but the board meets every other Tuesday and the next meeting will be March 8.

David Rott, MCPS human resources executive director, said the issue was already determined a matter of public concern, so the meeting will be open to the public. But since the meeting is regarding only employee discipline, which is not public concern, the public will not be able to make any comments.

The district urged the students to reprint the edition with several revisions, such as removing the photos and profanity. The Wire staff decided, however, that it will not reprint the issue.

Kylie Hoedel, co-editor of the Wire, said she doesn’t believe reprinting the issue with the recommended revisions would accomplish anything. She said that it would go “completely against our purpose.”

“We wanted to challenge the social boundaries and constructs that are wrapped around the idea of female sexuality, and we wanted the community to do it with us,” Hoedel said. “I would rather upload the original copy online than reprint a censored copy and deliver it around town.”

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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