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Students Assail School's Move to Kill Article

Newspaper staff at Venice High cries censorship after principal spikes investigative piece on health teacher's past.

June 21, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

This semester's final edition of Venice High School's student newspaper hit the stand this week, with one article conspicuously absent. Instead, the top headline read: "The Oarsman is Censored."

For months, two Oarsman reporters collected records for a planned investigative story about a teacher who, a decade ago, had a relationship with a movie actor when the teacher was in her late 20s and the actor was a teenager. Their story used court filings, police records and other documents to detail the relationship between "Terminator 2" star Edward Furlong and Jacqueline Domac, who teaches health at the school.

But when the young journalists went to Principal Janice Davis for comment, she killed the article. Davis said she wanted to protect the privacy of the teacher. The information in the article was irrelevant to Domac's work performance at Venice High, Davis said in an interview.

Her decision has set off a debate on campus over the boundaries of free speech and privacy. Some teachers are applauding the principal for protecting their right to privacy and for reminding students that school newspapers are different from big-time dailies.

The newspaper staff, however, is crying censorship. The reporters argued that their article would not violate Domac's privacy because her relationship had already been well documented in the media, including articles on E! Online and in Entertainment Weekly.

They say their story was meticulously researched and written, and is relevant to students and their parents. They told the principal the piece had been vetted by their classroom advisor; by Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn F. Bunting, who volunteers as a journalism tutor at the school; and by an attorney who represents media companies.

"It feels like a slap in the face, really," said co-editor Karina Santos, a senior. "The article was very professional. We were so respectful.... We really feel violated."

Susan Seager, a media law attorney who agreed to press the students' case with officials for free, said there was no legal justification to kill the article, which she believed contained valuable information.

"In my opinion, the school district suppressed a legitimate news story in violation of the district's own policy, California law and the 1st Amendment," she said. "The article contained important information about a teacher who teaches sex education whom the students felt parents would like to know.... If I were a parent at that school, this is something I would like to know."

District policy states that administrators should not censor an article "merely because it is controversial," but also asserts that school newspapers cannot publish material that "violates the right of privacy." Attorneys for the school district advised Davis that she should make the decision herself.

The students decided to look into Domac's past after researching another article about the teacher's successful campaign to stop the school from selling junk food to students.

Through a Web site, nojunkfood.org, Domac lobbies for legislation that would require schools in California to offer a complete vegetarian lunch menu. She has been quoted in many newspaper articles about the subject.

Oarsman journalists did a Google search of her name for more background and came upon stories mentioning her relationship with Furlong. They had also heard rumors around campus about Domac's past.But the students' advisor told them that, instead of basing their research on gossipy Web pages, they had to get real records to back their story.

Reporters Naldy Estrada, a 17-year-old senior, and Julio Robles, a 15-year-old sophomore, went to Los Angeles Superior Court downtown and started digging.

In the court records the students collected, Domac stated that she had started living with Furlong in 1993, the year he turned 17 and she turned 29. In a 1999 lawsuit, that Domac filed against Furlong for breach of contract, she described her relationship with the young actor as "quasi spousal."

Domac met Furlong on the set of "Terminator 2," where she worked as his stand-in, according to articles published about them. Domac said in court records that she later worked as his manager until he fired her in 1998. She sought $110,000 -- 15% of his earnings between 1995 and 1998, the years she said she managed him. It's unclear from court documents whether Domac received a financial settlement.

Their relationship was reported in several magazines, including a lengthy 1994 Entertainment Weekly profile of Furlong that featured a large photo of Domac and the actor standing arm-in-arm.

The students also included in their article Domac's misdemeanor conviction for disturbing the peace in 1995. Domac claimed that Los Angeles police officers used excessive force against her in that case, and she later received a $150,000 settlement from the city. The conviction was expunged.

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