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It's the 'principal' of the thing

Ombudsman

By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center
pmcmasters@freedomforum.org

07.11.00

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This is a tale of two principals, one principle, and two very different lessons.

Similar tales play out daily in the nation's high schools. Inevitably, parents, teachers and school officials miss great opportunities to show students how the First Amendment works in real lives. It is a rare day when a principal stands up for principle, but it happens.

A good example: Granite Bay High School in California.

When California law changed this year to require that sex-education courses emphasize abstinence, student journalists at Granite Bay High decided it was a good time to explore how sex-ed courses actually were taught. So they interviewed students, the sex-ed teacher and reproductive health experts.

The resulting story "was anything but titillating," Reynolds Holding wrote July 2 in the San Francisco Chronicle. "It told of the troubling gap between students' sexual drive and their knowledge of contraception and disease. It showed how teaching abstinence didn't cut the number of students having sex or relieve the anxiety and confusion caused by peer pressure."

Despite the straightforward content, a few parents — including some who hadn't read the story — were angered by the story's appearance in the school newspaper. They met with the principal and school board members to complain. For good measure, they also criticized the kind of literature students were studying in English classes and the kinds of plays the drama students were producing.

According to Holding's account, one father contacted Brad Dacus at the "Pacific Justice Institute." Dacus is an outspoken critic of homosexuality, indecent literature and Internet porn, among other things. The institute fired off a press release soon thereafter, essentially claiming that the student newspaper was teaching students about sex without getting their parents' consent. The release also rumbled ominously about lawsuits against the sex-ed teacher for discussing sex with the student journalists and against the journalism teacher for allowing the article to be published.

Rather than run for cover from the controversy and pressure, however, Granite Bay High School Principal Ron Severson defended his teachers and his students — and their First Amendment rights. He told Holding that no school policies would be changed and that he didn't think what the student journalists had done was a mistake.

Very few principals across the nation have the courage or time to face down even one angry parent, let alone a decency activist with a working fax machine or the threat of lawsuits.

Which brings us to the second principal, Walt Schofield at Milford High School in Utah.

Principal Schofield decided on a take-no-prisoners strategy after it was discovered that one of his students, 16-year-old Ian Lake, had posted a Web page on his home computer saying some rather naughty things about classmates, teachers and, ahem, Mr. Schofield.

Now it is no news to anyone that high school students occasionally say naughty things about their classmates, their teachers and their principals rather regularly and routinely. In fact, young Lake's Web page apparently was in retaliation for unkind things said about him and his friends on other students' Web sites. But Principal Schofield was determined to teach this young troublemaker a lesson.

As a result, a Beaver County sheriff's deputy arrested Lake, confiscated his computer and sent it to a state lab for analysis. The youngster was jailed for seven nights in a juvenile facility, then sent back to California where he came from.

Wait — that's not all. The local prosecutor then charged Lake with criminal libel. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that this was the first charge of criminal libel for Internet speech in the state's history. In fact, such prosecutions anywhere are rare. Two 19-year-olds in Citrus County, Fla., were charged with criminal defamation for a Web site in 1997 but the local prosecutor decided not to pursue the case because of the constitutional questions it raised.

Nevertheless, Ian Lake was scheduled today for his second court appearance on the charge in nearby Beaver.

Before principals can teach the right lesson, they have to learn the right lesson. And that is that they are the ones who are the guardians and guarantors of First Amendment rights as well as the educational excellence of their high school journalism programs. Until that lesson is learned and taught, students will be learning that the newspaper is a conscript of those in power and that their First Amendment rights don't matter.

In these days and time that's a problem not just for the journalism profession but also for all of America.

In this tale of two principals and one principle, students learned in one instance about the relationship between rights and responsibilities — their principal's responsibility to uphold their rights. In the other instance, they learned that they can go to jail for taking the First Amendment at its word.

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Update

Teen asks Utah high court to dismiss criminal-libel charge
ACLU attorney says statute being used to prosecute Ian Lake for Web postings is overly broad, punishes legal speech.  08.06.01

Previous

Attorney for Utah teen says state's criminal-libel law unconstitutional
Youth held in juvenile detention for a week after referring to female classmate, school principal by offensive names on his Web site.  07.07.00

Related

'Tools' fail as strategies to keep kids away from Net sex at libraries
Ombudsman Paul McMasters testifies before National Research Council that effort to combat 'harmful' material does more harm than good.  07.18.00

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