California High School Journalists Win Free Speech Victory

November 16, 2006 12:00 am

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Lawsuit Settled Over Censorship of Story About Sexual Orientation

LOS ANGELES – A Kern County judge is expected to issue a court order today that will ensure that Bakersfield high school students are not wrongly censored and that student free speech rights in the Kern School District are preserved.

The final step comes a year and a half after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the ACLU’s national Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, and the law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP filed a lawsuit after student journalists and their interview subjects were prohibited from publishing a series in the East High student newspaper, The Kernal, about sexual orientation and gender identity. East High School is part of the Kern School District in Bakersfield.

“This is a momentous day,” said Christine Sun, the ACLU of Southern California attorney who represented the six students and their co-plaintiff, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, throughout the fight. “From day one the students knew they had been wrongly censored and vowed to make sure this didn’t happen to the next generation of Kern students. Under this policy, the students would not have been censored in the first place.”

Maria Krauter, former editor-in-chief of The Kernal, added: “Even though I’m in college now, I really wanted to make sure that future newspaper staffs could write about serious topics like sexual orientation in a meaningful way without worrying that they would be censored. Now I know that’s the case.”

The agreement, which is signed by the ACLU, Milbank, and the Kern High School District and will be filed with Superior Court Judge Sidney P. Chapin today, affirms that “all students have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press” and that school officials may turn to censorship only as a last resort.

It states: “Prior to any restriction of student speech, school officials will consider all practical alternative options, and, where feasible, will implement any such practical alternative options instead of restricting the speech.”

The ACLU’s Sun said that the legally binding agreement came about as part of settlement discussions between the ACLU and the District this fall. Part of the settlement included a change to the district’s free speech policy, which the Kern High School District trustees drafted and approved in October.

“This consent decree is a victory for students’ free speech rights and sets an important example for other school districts that school officials must take proactive steps to protect students from harassment and threats of violence before resorting to censorship of students’ free speech,” said Carolyn Laub, executive director and founder of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. Nearly 600 schools in California have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.

Students originally sought to publish the articles in the second-to-last edition of the paper during the 2004-2005 academic year, but could not after the East High principal, citing vague threats to gay students, demanded the students pull the articles. The student journalists and their sources went to court seeking an order allowing them to publish the articles in the final edition of the paper.

The court denied the request, stating that more information about the district’s reasons for censoring the articles was needed. Over the summer and fall, school officials failed to produce evidence of their claims that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students would be harmed as a result of the publication of the articles. The lawsuit also revealed that the principal took no steps to inform those students’ parents or the police officer assigned to the school of the alleged threats. In October 2005, the school relented and informed members of The Kernal’s editorial board that the articles could be printed.

The students continued the lawsuit in order to obtain a policy that would prevent other students from being wrongfully censored, a goal that they achieved today with the consent decree.

Michael Diamond, Rick Baker and Jeff Goldman from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP were co-counsel along with Sun and James Esseks of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.

More information about the case, Paramo v. Kern High School District, can be found at:

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