High school papers test freedoms

Sex issues put student journalists' rights under the microscope

Nathan Lindsey and Sadie Callan know their Lawrence classmates have sex, talk about sex and think about sex.

They also know a school board member can’t keep them from printing stories about sex in their student newspapers. And that’s just what they’re doing.

“As an editor, I have 100 percent control over what is put into the paper,” said Lindsey, editor of Lawrence High School’s student paper.

“These are topics students are talking about,” Callan said of last week’s issue of the Free State High School student paper, which was devoted to sex.

Student press freedoms were in the news last week after Leonard Ortiz, a member of the Lawrence school board, criticized stories in the LHS paper, The Budget, and asked district officials to investigate.

And it’s not just happening in Lawrence.

Last week, the faculty adviser to the student newspaper at Salina Central High School was placed on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation into a sex-themed edition of the paper that came out Feb. 13.

Rights guaranteed

Despite the ensuing uproar in Salina — which has landed the story on local talk radio and in area newspapers — student editor Lauren Hendrick is sticking by her guns and asserting sex is a valid topic to be addressed in a student paper.

Student press experts agree with the teenagers. Student editors, they say, have all the power in the world to print what they want, as long as it’s true.

“This is why we went to fight for students in 1992,” said John Hudnall, referring to passage of the Kansas Student Publications Act.

Hudnall, a KU journalism professor, also is executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Assn.

Under the act, student publication advisers and other certified employees who supervise student publications are responsible for teaching and encouraging free speech. Those advisers cannot be terminated for refusal to abridge or infringe upon the right to freedom of expression.

Beyond the act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that First Amendment protections extended to student journalists.

“Lawrence schools have pretty much kept hands off of the school publications,” Hudnall said.

Under the Kansas Student Publications Act:¢ School administrators can review the newspaper before publication under standards of English and journalism.¢ An administrator could step in to remove libelous material, content promoting criminal conduct or writing that creates substantial disruption of school activity.¢ Students cannot be forced to delete a story, or require changes to a story, because an administrator deems the subject controversial.¢ Journalism advisers are protected from termination or transfer for refusing to infringe on a student’s freedom of expression under the law.

That may not be the case in Salina, where journalism teacher Jenny Acree remains on administrative leave and parents have called for suspension of the students involved in the publication.

In a prepared statement last week, school board president Richard Brake said Acree would remain on leave “pending final resolution,” and the district would have no further comment until then.

Role to inform

Student press freedom was clearly on display in the latest Free State High School Free Press, which produced an issue devoted entirely to sex.

“For the last issue of our paper, we narrowed it down to three issues,” Callan said. “In the end we decided to do a theme issue on sex.”

The eight-page newspaper was distributed to students Wednesday. The edition consists of such sex-related topics as the use of condoms and how sex helps the music industry. It also touched on a serious issue: rape.

“These are topics students are talking about,” Callan said. “We are a newspaper here to inform, and after a student survey, we found that 55 percent of our student body is having sex.”

In the Free Press issue, Callan wrote a letter to readers that attempted to pre-empt reader skepticism.

“We know that this could have very easily turned into an inappropriate and distasteful issue; however, we made every attempt to deal with this appropriately,” she wrote.

She said the staff hadn’t received any negative feedback about the issue.

OK with board member

Ortiz said he hadn’t seen a copy of the sex issue of the Free Press, but to him, sex itself isn’t what’s taboo.

“As long as it’s informational and looks at important issues, I don’t have any problem with that,” he said. No one has contacted him with concerns about the latest issue of the Free Press, which he said he looked forward to reading.

Oritz’s concern that he voiced last week arose because he considered some material in the current issue of The Budget to be libelous.

The Free Press issue hasn’t created a lot of negative buzz among students or their parents, according to Marshall Taylor, Free State junior.

“We’re all high school students,” Taylor said. “We love sex.” He said his parents saw the issue and didn’t think it was inappropriate.

In fact, the word around Free State is that Lawrence High students are wondering why no one’s said anything.

“I heard they’re complaining that no one’s complaining,” said Dereck Cooper, Free State junior.

Free State principal Joe Snyder didn’t see a reason to be concerned about the latest issue of the Free Press.

“In my opinion, this is what we call hype,” he said.

Debate west on I-70

In Salina, though, discussion of sex in the student press is raising more than eyebrows.

Stories in the Pylon, the Salina Central student newspaper, discussed the differences between anal, oral and vaginal sex, the growth of adult stores in the area, bracelets that color-code sexual availability — and went so far as to give a recipe for “Smells Like Sodomy Pot Roast.”

While many parents thought it went too far, others said most of the stories were valid journalism, according to a story in the Salina Journal.

“The other articles were fact-based,” Lorin Gawith, whose son Terry had written one of the articles, said at a meeting of the Salina school board. “I don’t know where they got their facts, but they were fact-based.”

Further, Gawith said, “Maybe if the article had been done five or six years ago, we wouldn’t have a day-care center (for the children of students) at Central now.”

Brenna Hawley, a former Perry-Lecompton High School student who now is a student editor at the Salina student paper, called it a funny coincidence the two school newspapers came out with sex issues about the same time.

“I took a look at the Free State paper,” she said. “It looks well-done.”

Hawley’s mother, a Lawrence resident, said she would have liked to see some items left out of the paper, but that she would stand by her daughter.

“I don’t think the sodomy recipe had a place in the paper, but the issue is that these students have a right,” Helen Hawley said. “We (parents) know that our kids talk about sex, and that is their right.”