Speak Freely

Daniel Fernandez

The Situation
“Sex & Relationships.” That was the title of The Oracle’s two-page feature published last month. The Mountain View High School newspaper published this collection of stories that elaborated on the many different types of student relationships in high school, and advised students on how to have safe sexual relationships, claiming to show the difference between “what [the school teaches] you in health and what you really need to know.”

The feature triggered outrage from parents and other adults in the community, many of whom spoke at a school board meeting on Feb. 11 and called for increased regulation for the school newspapers in the Mountain View Los Altos High School District. District Superintendent Barry Groves apologized for the article, stating, “as superintendent I’m responsible for everything that happens within the school district, so it’s my responsibility to ensure that everything that we publish is accurate and meets community standards.”

In short, Groves implied that the paper would be censored. It was a logical consequence, then, that the issue of The Oracle in question was initially removed from the school’s website by the staff of The Oracle.

The Principle

First, it must be established that the content published in The Oracle feature was not obscene. They helped direct puzzled students to the nearest Planned Parenthood and illustrated options such as Plan B and other birth control methods in the hopes that that if students were to engage in sexual relationships, they could use the information in the paper to do so safely.

While the phrasing or style of the writing could indeed be interpreted offensively, the primary purpose of the feature was to inform and educate, not to offend. The piece did not aim to convince students to become sexually active, but rather to ensure that they were aware of the options around them.

The strong relationship between education and the rate at which unplanned pregnancies occur suggests that schools should encourage sex education. Indeed, over half of teen moms do not graduate high school, and less than two percent will graduate with a college degree before they turn 35. Preventing misinformation for young teens and educating the student population is no act of obscenity: It’s an act of service. And while one cannot openly praise some of the phrasing of the articles, their informative nature cannot be attacked either.

The principle at stake, however, goes far beyond the content of this one story. It must be absolutely clear to everyone involved in this debacle that freedom of the press is a prerequisite for journalism, whether it be for a high school newspaper or a nationally acclaimed publication or anything in between.The backbone of journalism is to inform the public so that it can understand the problems our society is facing and make informed decisions to improve its own lives.

When censored, journalists are unable to accurately and effectively inform their audiences. When censored, journalists cannot foster discussion regarding controversial topics. And when censored, newspapers like The Oracle cannot help their readers tackle pressing issues in their lives.

In principle, journalists, whether they be students or professionals, cannot and should not compromise on the right to free press in this country. It is a principle that allows any publication, including The Oracle, to publish any content without interference from the administration or any other school official.

The Law

The principle of free press is protected in the state of California, especially in regard to student journalists. In 1977, California amended its Education Code with Section 48907, which appropriates student journalists with the most powerful press rights of all student journalists in the nation.

This law allows students complete autonomy in publication; while student publications can be subject to review by the administration, what is published is the final decision of the student editorial board.
Thus, by virtue of 48907, Superintendent Groves’ claim that “it’s [his] responsibility to ensure that everything that [The Oracle publishes] is accurate and meets community standards” is completely false. California law is clear: School administrators cannot control the content that school papers publish.

The only exception to this rule is when the published presents a “clear and present danger” to the day-to-day operations of the school or is considered libelous obscene or defamatory. While some parents have claimed that the articles can be considered “obscene,” and thus should have been censored by the administration, it is fallacy to attack a package that educates students about safe sexual behavior as “obscene.”

Our Response
It is understandable that parents were distraught over the content and wording the articles, but a proper response that could could have preserved the integrity of the articles published did not occur. Those offended, address your complaints directly to the staff at The Oracle, and ask them to change. Do not ask administration to take action; it is illegal for the administration to unnecessarily censor published content.

To the staff at The Oracle: remain strong. There is no reason to apologize for having published this content. Not only do your rights to press stem from the fundamental principle of free speech, but you are also protected by the strongest set of student press laws in the nation.

And finally, to all student journalists in California: It is quite unfortunate that, in a nation that champions free speech, we need a separate law to protect student journalists. California has that law, however, and it is based on sound principle and reason. So know your rights, stick to your stories, and most of all, speak freely.