Rather than being pilloried, these young journalists should be commended for having the courage to take on a timely, but extremely sensitive subject in a frank and compelling way. The stories attempted to bring some perspective to the way teens think about sex, a subject that is front and center in the minds of virtually every adolescent in high school. Those who based their judgment on the vitriolic criticism unleashed by a group of parents at a school board meeting two weeks ago should make an effort to see the complete package of articles published in the February edition, just prior to Valentines Day. They might be surprised to see stories on the effectiveness of abstinence, an illustrated look at stereotypical high school relationships, and the dangers of mistaking passion for love. Information about the morning-after pill, sexually transmitted diseases and masturbation are provided in this two-page spread of stories that we found to be a well-rounded approach to writing about such a sensitive topic.
One misstep was acknowledged by the editors, but overall, no one reading this coverage could come away thinking that any of it was salacious or designed to appeal to the prurient interests of its audience. These were teens writing honestly about a subject that is on the minds of their readers. The authors made a good faith effort to provide information that many of these students are not finding at home or in the health education classes offered at school. In fact, the health education teachers said that she welcomed the articles, which offer a good starting point for serious discussions in her classes on topics that she cannot bring up.
Teenage sexual behavior is something that many parents seek to control and those protesting the Oracle's coverage expressed outrage that the student newspaper was usurping the family's role in having this delicate discussion. But these parents sound like they are coming from another era, when this subject was rarely, if ever, discussed in public or at home, leaving teenagers few reliable sources of good information. And even today, at least according to the poll published in the newspaper, nearly half of students obtain information about sex from their friends, while another 21 percent search online. Parents or other family members were the source for only about 14 percent of those students responding to the poll.
There is another side to this story that parents upset about the Oracle articles may not know about. Under California law, students have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press that covers a wide range of materials, including petitions, wearing buttons, badges and other insignia, and the right of expression in official publications supported by the school, unless the publications are judged to be obscene, libelous or slanderous, or if they incite students to act in a way that presents a "clear and present danger" to the operation of the school. This protection also extends to advisers of student publications and bars school administrators from censoring material prepared for the student publications.
As journalists it would be our hope that the Oracle staff would learn from this process, but not be intimidated by it. The outraged parents must understand that they cannot impose their will on the entire student body of Mountain View High School. We suspect most parents and certainly a huge majority of the students found no problem with the February edition of the Oracle with its center spread coverage of Sex and Relationships, which is no doubt one of the year's most popular editions of the newspaper.