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High school newspaper wages First Amendment battle with administrators over a story about a student working in the porn industry

Iffy territory

Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images

Students and administrators at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, California, are squaring off over whether the high school newspaper should run a story on an 18-year-old student who works in the pornography industry.

Students and the journalism teacher who runs the paper are claiming that free speech is the issue — but the administration is more concerned that the feature is simply inappropriate for students.

What is the stance of the publisher?

According to KOVR-TV, Kathi Duffel, the teacher behind the school's Bruin Voice, believes that free speech should be the priority.

"When you are on the side of free speech, you will never lose," Duffel said.

The administration sent a letter to Duffel earlier in April, threatening that she could be subject to termination if the story isn't sent to the administration for prior approval before publication.

"I opened it up and read it ... and then I cried," said Duffel, who later consulted an attorney.

"We believe this student has every right to tell her story legally, and that we have every legal right to tell it," Duffel insisted.

Staff writer Bailey Kirkeby told the outlet that the unidentified student in the adult film industry engages in the work to help pay living expenses, such as rent.

"I think a lot of people assume that she's just the porn star, but the story is actually giving her a personality," Kirkeby told KOVR.

What is the stance of the administration?

In a statement provided to the outlet, Lodi Unified School District said that they also have legal options.

"Lodi Unified School District supports the rights our students have to freedom of speech," the statement began. "The District has not censored nor stopped the publication of the Bruin Voice, or any article originally scheduled to be published on April 23, now scheduled for May 3."

"The District is legally required to ensure that publications do not violate Education Code Section 48907," the statement continued. "This law requires districts to prevent the publication of obscenity, defamation, and incitement. It also prohibits the publication of content that fails to meet the professional standards of English and journalism."

"The District will legally intervene to ensure that any school-related activity complies with the law. We are working cooperatively with Mrs. Duffel, the teacher who oversees the Bruin Voice. After refusing to allow the District to see the article, she proposed that an independent attorney review the article to ensure compliance with the law," the statement revealed. "The District agreed on April 18. In addition, Mrs. Duffel acknowledged that the District's concerns raised some interesting points and that the students have more work to do. Regardless of action taken by Mrs. Duffel, the District remains committed to the agreed upon process."

So what's going to happen?

The paper is set to run the feature on May 3, despite pushback from the administration.

Gabriella Backus, the paper's editor-in-chief, said she will not back down.

"[The administration's] intimidation tactics, which we've all seen at this point, should not scare [the student] away from defending herself," Backus said.

Duffel supports the decision.

"Our students are the watchdog of our administration, and I want our administration to know we are watching and they will be held accountable," Duffel said.

One last thing…
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