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HIGH LIFE : Principal, Newspaper Staff Battle on Censorship Issue at Foothill High School

May 21, 1988|JOANNA BROOKS | Joanna Brooks, a junior at Foothill High School, serves on the staff of the student newspaper Knightlife, the student body cabinet and the school's Safe Rides program; she participates in cross-country and track, writes a school column for the Tustin News, and enjoys sleeping

Recipe for a controversy: Mix a new school principal, a new policy, a critical-thinking newspaper, an article on the flag salute and a poll on sex, AIDS and health education. Sprinkle liberally with charges of censorship and unpatriotism and bake in an oven of emotions surrounding First Amendment rights.

There has been such a controversy at Foothill High School in Santa Ana.

Last January, Principal James A. Ryan, in his first year at Foothill, reinstituted the flag salute as a weekly event. The majority of the students participated with less than great enthusiasm.

Ingrid Moon, a junior and feature editor of Knightlife, the student newspaper, took the half-hearted show of student participation to task in a Feb. 12 editorial titled "Do We Pledge Our Allegiance?"

"I was curious as to whether it (the flag salute) was serving its purpose," Moon said.

Moon's editorial raised the ire of Ryan and the surrounding community.

Ryan responded to the editorial with an address over the school's public address system.

"I wanted to explain why we salute the flag," he said, "and explain that good citizens salute and do the pledge."

Ryan and officials of the Tustin Unified School District also responded with the institution of a new school publishing policy: All articles, headlines and cartoons, henceforth, were to be reviewed by Ryan prior to publication.

Although upset by what she interpreted as an "infringement on our constitutional rights," Knightlife Editor Tina Araujo and her staff submitted for review every article, including an editorial by staff writer Curtis Hsia criticizing Ryan's talk over the public address system.

Ryan would not permit the critical editorial to be published.

"When Mr. Ryan withdrew the article due to 'inaccuracy,' I contacted the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) for legal counsel," said senior Sean Flynn, editorial page editor. "Education Code 48907 clearly states that only libel, slander and obscenity are grounds for censorship. Actually, I think he took the article personally because it put him in a bad light."

Eventually, the article was rewritten and resubmitted. "It was less intense," Hsia said.

On March 22, Ryan and district Supt. Maurice A. Ross met with the Knightlife staff to explain that the two would be personally involved in the review of articles for "accuracy, fairness and demeaning quality."

"Suddenly, we had two district administrators reviewing articles that could make them look bad," Flynn said. "They were making up rules as they went along."

Back in the journalism room, the next issue of Knightlife was being prepared, as was a poll pertaining to students' sexuality, AIDS and health and safety classes.

"Our intent was not to cause commotion (with the survey) and to see if we could get censored again," Hsia said. "I had wanted to do a poll, and this topic seemed the most relevant, timely and important."

Hsia received permission from Ryan to conduct the anonymous poll, but as it was being distributed in late April during first-period classes, the principal came on the public address system once again and asked that teachers not distribute it.

"Sex surveys are not allowed by anyone during class time," Ryan later explained.

Said Flynn: "This was frustrating. I knew their action was illegal. It upset us because they went back on their word (of approval) also."

In response to the district's action, the ACLU requested a temporary restraining order on Flynn's behalf. On May 5, Orange County Superior Court Judge Eleanor M. Palk ordered that the newspaper staff be allowed to distribute the survey on campus during lunchtime and before and after school.

Further litigation with the intent of settling on guidelines for prior review in line with the Education Code was set for last Thursday in Orange County Superior Court. But on Wednesday, the school district's governing board made a proposal to Flynn.

"Carol Sobel (of the ACLU) contacted me and told me of their promises," Flynn said. "They will allow Curtis (Hsia's) article (survey results) to be printed, and they will rewrite the guidelines to both of our agreements along the lines of the Education Code and with respect to the time requirements of a newspaper.

"Originally, we went to the ACLU not to sue but to settle outside court through someone they (school district) would listen to. I am glad it was resolved peacefully, and I know the guidelines will be fair and that the board will be satisfied with the results."

Superintendent Ross later said administrators never objected to the poll itself, only to its distribution during class time.

And the staff's immediate plans?

"Well, we have a paper to put out by June 3," Editor Araujo said. "And I think we're going to change the banner to read 'Knightlife--dedicated to freedom of the student voice.' "

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