Kathi Duffel, a high school English teacher and faculty advisor of Bear Creek High School’s award winning newspaper The Bruin Voice, might be out of a job. On April 11, she received a letter from the Lodi Unified School District in Stockton threatening to fire her if she didn’t allow the school administration to pre-approve an upcoming article. The story involved an 18-year-old senior at the school by the name of Caitlin Fink who was known to have worked in adult entertainment.
Rumors had been circulating about Fink’s work for some time, so a journalist on The Bruin Voice staff took up the story in order to set the record straight publicly and provide an opportunity to humanize Fink. The student happily consented to both her name and her story being told to the world. When school administration heard about the story, scheduled to publish on May 3, they became concerned, and threatened the journalism teacher with the aim to acquire the story beforehand. In their attempts to censor the student journalists, these school officials overstepped major boundaries. All school publications should have the right to publish their own information without school involvement.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press should not only apply to people over the age of 18. The ideas and desires of the youth are often overshadowed by the demands of society, especially in terms of privacy and speech. Minor or adult, individuals living within one society should all be held to the same standards. The First Amendment of the Constitution says that all US citizens have the right to free speech and freedom of the press. These two rights are two of the most important civil liberties that Americans have, and they are essential to a successful democracy.
The Constitution is intended to apply to all citizens, meaning that neither the governing body of a country nor the governing body of a school has the right to censor students and infringe upon their First Amendment rights. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Duffel said she believes the attempt by the district was overreach, and she has plans to combat them legally should they continue to threaten her and her students’ right to free speech.
A trusted and free press is vital to a working democracy. Without the free press, society would be uninformed of the happenings in the government, and citizens have a right to journalistic checks and balances. School publications often manifest the struggles we see on a national level when it comes to censorship and freedom of the press. At Bear Creek High School, the administration has attempted to censor The Bruin Voice more than once. Previously, the paper was planning to publish a story about the school’s failing safety policy and the principal of the school confiscated all 1700 copies of that issue. This is censorship at its extremes, and it shows how a free student press is necessary to keep the student body and surrounding community informed on important local issues.
Section 48907 of the California Education Code asserts the right of high school newspapers to publish whatever they choose, so long as the content is not explicitly obscene, libelous, or slanderous. The district’s notion of obscenity stems from the administration’s clear discomfort towards their students’ sexual activity being publicized. The administration at Bear Creek High School is showing less maturity than the student journalists who are ready to examine these issues in a serious and respectful manner. Fink’s willingness to publicize her story should mean that nothing stands in the way of its release. The district’s threat of termination hanging above Duffel’s head is causing more outrage than the story itself. Though the school administration wanted to steer the public away from this story, they ended up doing the opposite. This demonstrates to students that their own personal lives can be publicized by the American press but not by their own school’s newspaper.
Censorship is a major threat to the First Amendment rights of all people, no matter their age. As a student publication, the Jacket stands in solidarity with Duffel and the journalists at Bear Creek High School.