Montana school board upholds principal’s suspension for publishing “Free the Nipple” student newspaper edition

MONTANA — After receiving a three-day suspension for a student newspaper edition deemed inappropriate by the school district, a high school principal appealed her discipline. On Monday, her appeal was denied.

Willard Alternative High School Principal Jane Bennett had filed a notice of appeal to the Board of Trustees of Missoula County Public Schools on Feb. 22. Bennett appealed her three-day suspension without pay after serving it in early February. The suspension followed a January printing of Willard’s school newspaper, the Wire, that contained topless photos of men and women, as well as profanity and sexual language.

The photos accompanied an editorial titled “Free the Nipple,” which discussed the difference in perception between male and female toplessness and questioned society’s assumption that gender defines whether it is appropriate to expose one’s chest.

In an interview-based section following the editorial, a breastfeeding mother answered, “I think it’s kind of fucked” in response to negative opinions associated with public breastfeeding.

The edition also contained explicit language like “dick” and “tit” in a section titled, “Misconceptions SLAMMED,” which highlighted derogatory statements made to breastfeeding mothers in the comment sections on parenting blogs.

Bennett was suspended because she reviewed the newspaper before its publication, which was immediately recalled by the district. The student newspaper adviser received a formal reprimand.

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

Bennett said in the future she will be more collaborative with the school’s journalism teacher, Lisa Waller, in reviewing the paper, but will not “hover or micromanage,” as she said she trusts Waller implicitly.

“I will continue to not censor the paper and will maintain my trust in our students to pick topics that are serious issues worth writing about,” Bennett said in an email. “We are an alternative high school so, of course, we can be expected to be audacious.”

At a special meeting that lasted over two hours Monday night, the board vigorously debated the First Amendment, the need for prior restraint and the definitions of the words “obscene” and “vulgar” in district policy.

Bennett’s attorney, Paul Leisher of the Paoli Law Firm, stressed that principals should not be held liable for the content published in a school newspaper. He said Bennett did not review the articles individually, and did not read the particular language used.

“This district has always felt that the principal needs to take a hands-off approach to the extent possible,” Leisher said. “Not least because of the legal liability that can occur from censorship.”

The board determined that the subject matter of the edition was valuable and the topless photos were acceptable, but members couldn’t look past the vulgar language.

“I think the photos are great actually, they illustrate the point very well,” said Korbin Bragstad, a board member and University of Montana student. “It’s just unfortunate that the language that was used had to be used.”

He said there are some things “you can’t say in a publication that’s going to be mass distributed.”

Board member Diane Lorenzen said the language posed a distraction from the meaning of the article.

“If [the students] were trying to test the boundary of the language and the boundary of the pictures in the same issue, you can’t make an experiment with two variables,” Lorenzen said. “They missed their opportunity to find out what the boundaries were on the pictures.”

Bennett said she believes the experience has taught student journalists valuable insights about writing more powerfully and persuasively by using language that communicates ideas without weakening their arguments with words people may find offensive.

Ultimately, the board voted 8-1 that Bennett had violated district policy and that the suspension without pay was appropriate.

Elizabeth Kaleva, legal counsel for the board, said the district is comfortable with its authority to recall the newspaper if the material is unfit for distribution.

“To be very clear, Ms. Bennett indicated she reviewed this article, this language and said ‘this was okay,’” Kaleva said. “And that’s what we’re saying is absolutely not okay, and that’s the basis for this discipline.”

But the principal’s role is not explicitly listed in Policy 3221, which the board decided that Bennett violated.

Michael Beers, a local comic and Bennett’s lone supporter on the board, said the decision to uphold Bennett’s suspension established the responsibility of the principal in reviewing material, which wasn’t clear before.

He said principals in the district will now have to decide whether to review student newspapers line-by-line and censor anything objectionable, or face possible discipline.

“Where does that leave us going forward? [That’s] something I keep coming back to,” Beers said.

Journalists in the community rallied around Bennett. Larry Abramson, dean of the University of Montana Journalism School, tweeted his support of Bennett. “Disappointed that censorship is alive and well in Missoula,” he said.

An editorial by the Missoula Independent condemned the board’s decision, saying that the student journalists and their teacher should have made the final call on the contents of the newspaper, not the district.

“Willard students and staff were courageous in their willingness to push the envelope on an important issue, but Superintendent Mark Thane and the Board of Trustees have almost certainly ensured that school leaders won’t permit such risks in the future,” the editorial said. “As such, they’ve created more controversy than a bare nipple or a crude reference ever could.”

Bennett said she will continue to fight against censorship.

“I will never regret standing up for our journalists and their free speech rights,” she said.

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

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