It's the 'principal' of the thing
By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center
This is a tale of two principals, one principle, and two very
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
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