2006 Youth Activist Scholarship -- Maria Krauter

May 5, 2006

Maria Krauter is a senior at East Bakersfield High School in Bakersfield, California. In a struggle for free press and speech rights for students, Maria was a plaintiff in a case fought by the ACLU of Southern California. It is because of her steadfast determination throughout this struggle that she was nominated for the Youth Activist Scholarship.

Following is Maria’s scholarship essay.

Taking journalism was one of the best decisions I’ve made in high school. I didn’t just find a class to fill my empty elective slot; I found a passion. Before we were allowed to publish a single word, we learned and discussed the freedoms of the press. We also discussed the legalities, responsibilities, and ethics connected with the media. I became extremely aware of the rights and duties of the press, but I don’t think I understood what censorship could really mean until my own firsthand experience.

When the East Bakersfield High School administration refused to allow our school newspaper, The Kernal, to publish a features package last April that presented the views of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and their parents, “freedom of the press’’ suddenly became a very real challenge. I learned the levels I would go to in order to protect the ideals I value most highly.

As features editor, I wanted to present a balanced, interesting look at a relevant issue that was not being discussed on campus. Just before deadline, the principal told us not to publish our articles or all newspapers would be confiscated. He said the stories might cause some students to harm those interviewed.

Bakersfield is a conservative place, but even if people choose to cover their own eyes and ears, they don’t have the right to stifle someone else’s voice. That’s not just what I believe; it’s also the law. Unlike many states, California has enacted a statute protecting students’ freedom of speech and press, Section 48907 of the Education Code.

I knew we had to take a stand, but how could students make the principal and the school district obey the law? It seemed hopeless until the ACLU offered legal assistance. With the ACLU’s help, I joined two other editors and two students interviewed in the articles to seek a court order requiring our stories to run before the school year ended. The local judge wouldn’t issue an order because of time constraints, so we sought a hearing this fall.

Suing the high school district wasn’t easy for me. I was the “golden girl” of my high school. I had a spotless academic record and a good reputation with the administration. Why stir the pot? Would I be labeled a troublemaker?

However, in my heart I knew there was only one thing to do. How could I expect others to stand up for their beliefs if I was too afraid to fight for mine? I realized this was not a time to back down. The moment I signed my name to the lawsuit was absolutely terrifying, but I have also never been more proud. I understood right then that some things in life are worth fighting for.

When the lawsuit became public, we were vilified in letters to the editor and on local talk radio shows, but I continued pressing to run the stories, which I knew would speak for themselves. As editor-in-chief this fall, I rejected the administration’s offer to allow us to publish without students’ names or photographs. Some said I was just trying to prove something.

They were right. I was trying to prove that the law allows us to print articles about real people with real identities. These students sit next to Kernal readers in math class, stand behind them in the lunch line, and sometimes display affection in the hallways just like other students. These people wanted their names printed and their stories told, and their parents had signed permission forms.

I was also trying to prove that bullies don’t run our school. If there was indeed a safety problem on campus, censoring the student newspaper wouldn’t fix it. We refused to drop the lawsuit, and this November, the principal finally allowed us to publish on our terms, with names and photographs.

Everything that has happened since the lawsuit has shown me how right we were to hold out for publication. During the battle to publish the controversial features section, my community began to talk about not only the issues discussed in the articles but also about student press rights and personal beliefs. Ironically, the censorship of the newspaper opened a dialogue on the very issues the administration didn’t want published.

This year, I’ve learned that being an activist is within every person’s reach. By living and practicing the principles and freedoms we believe in, we can all challenge injustice and make change.

I used to think of activists as people who headed huge letter-writing campaigns or who staged national protests and boycotts. However, my experience in fighting for freedom of the student press has shown me that each of us has the ability to enact change. We can and must fight to keep our civil liberties. With groups like the ACLU behind us, we can all be activists who help to keep our country and its citizens free.

 

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