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All the News That's Fit to Print? : High School Papers Still Test Limits After Court Ruling

February 07, 1988|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

In the last several months, the Mustang campus newspaper at San Dieguito High School ran stories on the issue of students accused of beating up people off-campus, featured the economic plight of Central American immigrants, and editorialized against a military draft and bland social justice pronouncements from the Pope.

The Poway High Iliad criticized the value of the current drug education programs on campus, pointed to misleading statements used by military recruiters, and ran a pro-con debate on whether students with AIDS should be allowed to remain on campus.

At Hoover High in East San Diego, The Cardinal took a teacher to task for threatening a student's eligibility to participate in a sport, asked why school district officials do not give equal standing to holy days of Buddhism and other religions as they do to those of Christians and Jews, and highlighted disagreement over new campus rules limiting places where students can eat lunch.

And the Smoke Signal at El Cajon Valley High weighed in with its own pro-con exchange on AIDS students, debated the need for health clinics on high school campuses, and covered methamphetamine labs in East County, all while carrying out an editorial effort to improve the school's self-image.

Not exactly the powder-puff journalism sometimes imagined for high school papers, although all the papers featured stories as well about student achievers, sports and clubs, and upbeat events taking place on their campuses.

However, in light of last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision that upholds the power of public school authorities to control the content of high school newspapers, some supporters of the student press worry that the days of crusading journalism may be over.

The court held that First Amendment rights do not require a school to print whatever the students write if, in the view of school administrators, the barring of such material would serve a "valid educational purpose."

The decision itself will have no immediate effect in California, where the state Education Code allows censorship by school officials only in cases of probable libel, slander or obscenity, or where an article encourages students to break the law or otherwise disrupt a school's educational mission.

But the Supreme Court ruling could allow state officials to make their statute more restrictive, if desired. And in its broadest sense, some people fear that it will chill the aggressive spirit of high school journalists everywhere.

Such a general chill does not appear to be in the offing at several schools countywide visited during the past several weeks. At most schools, the students and their newspaper faculty advisers show no signs of backing away from continuing to cover all issues, positive and negative, that they believe relevant to their campuses.

At all the schools visited, however, students and administrators emphasized that the quality and breadth of the campus paper depend largely on the ability of students to produce strong writing and the willingness of the principal to allow free rein with only minimal oversight. No matter the state law, a principal or journalism adviser can still set the tone for an individual paper through either an iron-fisted or velvet-gloved approach.

"My attitude has always been that unless something was (extremely controversial), I am not going to interfere," Art Pegas, El Cajon Valley principal, said.

"I would give as much leeway as possible to the paper," San Diego City Schools Supt. Tom Payzant told a group of high school journalists last month following the Supreme Court decision.

"I fear censorship but support those (administrators) who might step in and talk with students before publishing a particular article, to hope they understand the issues concerning libel . . . there are times appropriate for a principal to pull an article but that is an individual decision that must be looked at closely . . .. I would err a bit on the side to preserve the student right to free speech rather than censor."

A more restricted procedure is the one at Gompers Secondary School in Southeast San Diego, where a cartoon parody last year was judged by the principal to be racist. Now, all articles with a hint of controversy are passed through a special committee of teachers for approval. Adviser Frances Miles sees her goal as "focusing the paper on good news" as a way to lessen longstanding tension on the campus, but Gompers students maintain the result is a much more pallid broadsheet than would be possible otherwise.

Enterprise Reporting

But in general, the differences among San Diego County schools appear to result more from the nature of an individual campus and the popularity of its journalism class rather than from the amount of enterprise reporting allowed by administrators. Just as the San Francisco Chronicle has a different tone than the Sacramento Bee or The San Diego Tribune, school newspapers reflect the interests, economic background and diversity of their student bodies.

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