Taking care not to offend the offended or overstep California's strong protections for student journalists, teachers and school officials are choosing their words carefully after a group of parents charged that there's been insufficient oversight of the Mountain View High School newspaper.
After the student-run paper, the Oracle, printed a series of articles exploring drugs and student drug use, and, more recently a package of articles on "Sex and Relationships," the parents turned out in force at a February school board meeting to voice concerns and demand that school officials exercise more control over the publication.
Coverage of the controversy in the Voice resulted in a deluge of online comments and emails -- both from students and community members critical of the parents' views, as well as from the concerned parents and their supporters who insist that some of what was printed in the Oracle was at the very least distasteful and perhaps even obscene.
"I believe that as a highly educated school community with expectations for outstanding public education, we are capable of teaching journalism in a way that both supports student's freedom of speech, while also guiding students towards quality and professional writing," Tabitha Hanson, one of the concerned parents, wrote in an email to the Voice. She said that she supported the students' right to explore difficult and controversial topics such as sex and drugs, but added that she felt the way in which the articles were written did not live up to the standards of writing she would like to see.
"As adults, I believe we are also capable of teaching our students that professional journalism includes an awareness and a concern for the audience for which they write (at MVHS, that includes kids as young as 13)," she said.
Another parent, Sarah Robinson, said that portions of the "Sex and Relationships" package met her definition of obscenity.
"Don't be upset plainly because you didn't orgasm," reads one such passage from the article, "Things you learn in health class, and what you really need to know," which both Hanson and Robinson identified as one of the most offensive articles in the "Sex and Relationships" package. "You might feel perfectly fine after missing the climax (assuming you don't have blue balls)."
Community, legal standards
Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, said he felt that above parenthetical phrase was particularly unfortunate and crass. He also said that in a subsequent talk with the Oracle staff and its adviser, Amy Beare, he had encouraged the budding journalists to be ever mindful of "community standards."
"What do newspapers print and not print?" Groves said he asked the Oracle staff. "Are we just writing to high school juniors and seniors, or are we writing to everybody?" -- including younger children, grandmothers, grandfathers and all other community members. Indeed, certain parents pointed out that the Oracle is delivered to their home and that very young children are sometimes the first to go thumbing through its pages.
But while they admit that "mistakes were made," both Groves and Bear, are adamant that no legal lines were crossed.
As objectionable as the articles may have been to some parents, there is little school officials can do to prevent the Oracle from publishing such articles in the future, according Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.
"Very, very little can be censored in California," Goldstein said, explaining that while the Supreme Court precedent set in the 1988 case "Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier," dictates that districts can censor school publications, laws have since been passed in the state which supersede that ruling. The only way a school administration could legally exercise prior restraint on an article in a student newspaper, Goldstein said, would be if that article incited students to act in way that presented a "clear and present danger" to the operations of the school, or if the articles were defamatory, libelous or obscene.
While Robinson and other parents have said that they felt certain articles printed in The Oracle met the criteria for obscenity, Beare pointed out that U.S. courts have had trouble defining exactly what "obscenity" means.
There is a good reason behind California's strong legal protections for journalists, no matter their age, Goldstein said. "Whenever you have a question to err on the side of fewer rights or more rights," he mused, "you always produce better citizens by giving them more rights."
That doesn't mean everything students produce is great or even tasteful, he admitted. But, he continued, paraphrasing state Sen. Leland Yee, who authored many of California's student journalist protection laws, "I think the consequences of censoring student speech are greater than the consequences of less than ideal student speech."
Christy Reed, a third concerned parent who addressed the board emphasized in an email to the Voice that she recognizes the rights guaranteed student journalists in California. "I think we lose sight of the complete picture when we talk only in terms of what is legally permissible. The goal for everyone involved is to prepare our students for the future through the most excellent instruction we can give," said Reed. "This is not about wanting to shut down the Oracle or about students suing for First Amendment rights. This is about recognizing that with such significant rights comes great responsibility.
"Topics like sex and drugs are issues of import facing our high school students. Writing about these topics is not taboo. The manner in which they are approached, edited and eventually published to a target audience is what's in question, as well as the important role adults play in mentoring our students."
Heather Boyle, a health teacher at MVHS, agrees with Reed that the topics discussed throughout the "Sex and Relationships" package ought not to be taboo. In fact, Boyle said, just about everything discussed in the article, "What they teach you in health, and what you actually need to know," by Abby Cunniff, is fair game for discussion in her health class.
Boyle is not allowed to talk about pornography, which is mentioned in the article. Yet, while Boyle doesn't always bring up topics such as masturbation, the phases of sexual desire, where students can get free birth control and other similarly controversial items, she said that those topics often come up in class, and she is always happy to discuss them.
In fact, she said, the only problem she had with Cunniff's article was its title and introduction, which claims that teachers aren't as candid with kids as they ought to be.
"I don't like to think of myself as someone who teaches in the way she describes," Boyle said, noting that she has always felt comfortable discussing most sexual topics openly. "The state really encourages a comprehensive program and the district has never done anything to hold me back from doing that."
That said, she doesn't really see any problem with the publication of the article. Boyle even made a point to say that while she might not use the phrase "blue balls" in anything she would submit for publication, she understands the writer's impulse to be edgy and try to get a laugh from student readers.
Boyle also offered some caveats to information in Cunniff's article. For example, she said, Cunniff wrote that the "morning after" contraceptive pill can be effective for up to five days after sex. Boyle emphasized that while this is technically accurate, the pill's rate of effectiveness would be greatly diminished five days down the road.
Overall, however, Boyle said she thought that Cunniff's article was "great." Students at MVHS have the option of taking their health units in a variety of ways, Boyle said, and she isn't sure all the acceptable outlets for this information would be as candid as she is in her class or as Cunniff was in her article. "As a health teacher, I want teenagers to have as much information on how to stay healthy as possible."