Drawing the line on stick figures

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lewdness is in the eye of the beholder.

That’s clear from a federal appeals court decision supporting the suppression of a student cartoon depicting stick figures in Kama Sutra positions.

In 2005, students at New York’s Ithaca High School tried to include it in an issue of the student newspaper, The Tattler, to accompany an article titled: “Alumni Advice, Sex is Fun!” written by a former student, but the faculty adviser rejected the article and cartoon.

The students tried again, using the cartoon with a different article titled, “How is Sex Being Taught in Our Health Class?” This time, the newspaper adviser approved the article, but once again barred publication of the cartoon. Students protested to the principal and a short time later the adviser resigned, citing stress.

The students were resilient, and decided to publish their own independent version of The Tattler called “The March Issue.” This took it out of direct school control, but when the students sought to distribute the edition on campus, the administration once again prevented distribution because of the stick-figure cartoon.

The student editors filed suit and the district court ruled against them, finding that the school had a right to censor both the student newspaper and the unofficial newspaper. In time, the case made its way to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier has governed student press law over the past 23 years. While acknowledging that students have First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court found that official student publications can be censored to advance legitimate educational concerns.

In the Ithaca case, the district court concluded that keeping suggestive cartoons out of the hands of ninth graders was consistent with the school’s educational mandate. That was no surprise.

The 2nd Circuit then went on to conclude that the students’ independent newspaper could be censored because of case law allowing school officials to suppress “lewd” language in a school setting. “Drawings of stick figures in sexual positions clearly qualify as ‘lewd,’ that is, ‘inciting to sensual desire or imagination,’” 2nd Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes wrote in R.O. v. Ithaca City School District. Cabranes also described the cartoon as “sexually explicit.”

In the end, then, the students lost this appeal because of the court’s finding that the stick figures would arouse the sensual desire or imagination of ninth graders.

Since 2005, the year the case was filed, Internet access has grown dramatically, as have porn sites. Students are exposed — accidentally and otherwise — to truly sexually explicit photographs on the Web. In addition, educators, parents and law enforcement are increasingly concerned about teen “sexting,” the practice of sending nude photographs by text messaging.

In this environment, it seems a stretch to call anatomically vague stick figures “sexually explicit.”

The cartoon was censored because the school found it embarrassing, not because it would unleash the sexual imaginations of ninth graders. They can pretty much do that on their own.

Student newspaper advisers can — and do — go a long way in preventing clashes like this from making their way into the court system. This cartoon was clumsy and amateurish with all the artistry and wit of a bathroom scrawl.

Wasn’t there an opportunity to sit down with the students and say, “This isn’t very good work. Can’t we think of another way to make the same point?”

The best student newspaper advisers don’t reflexively censor or roll over for student newspaper staffs, but do everything they can to help young journalists make the points they intended to make. That’s good for both education and the First Amendment.

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