Student newspaper shut down after publishing flag-burning photo

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A high school newspaper in Northern California has been
disbanded after it published a front-page photo of a student burning an American
flag, triggering criticism that the administration was stifling free

Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard said the school year's final
issue of the student-run Volcano was embarrassing.

“The paper's done,” Woollard told the Record Searchlight newspaper of
Redding. “There is not going to be a school newspaper next year.”

In addition to the photograph, the June 3 edition of the student newspaper
included an editorial written by senior Connor Kennedy that defended
flag-burning as speech protected by the First Amendment.

Kennedy graduated last week from the high school in Redding, about 160 miles
north of the state capital. Yesterday, he said he chose the topic for his final
column as editor-in-chief because he and his classmates had just studied
flag-burning as part of the curriculum in their government class.

“I'm deeply saddened, and I find it terribly ironic a high school newspaper
would be shut down for exercising free speech — particularly when the curriculum
being taught was that this was free speech,” Kennedy told the Associated

The 18-year-old has been accepted to the University of California-Santa
Barbara and plans to major in political science.

“We didn't mean to drive anyone to anger or outrage the way it has,” he

Judy Champagne, the Volcano's faculty adviser, told the Record
that the students added the editorial and flag-burning photo at
the last minute to create controversy. She said flag-burning had not been a
local issue until the students made it one.

“I think that the students were sabotaging what should have been a positive
last issue,” Champagne was quoted as the Record Searchlight as saying. “I
think it's very sad that we're not going to have a paper.”

The local newspaper reported that Champagne complained about a lack of news
judgment from some of the student staffers. “I thought it was bad journalism,”
she said.

“I think that they misused” their freedom of speech, Champagne said. “I think
this was a game for them.”

Superintendent Mike Stuart, a U.S. Army veteran, told the Record
: “Personally I find it offensive. Especially the last newspaper
of the year. It's like a parting shot.”

He said it showed the students' immaturity.

“I think it was especially self-indulgent,” he told the local newspaper. “I
don't like it at all.”

A First Amendment expert said the students were within their legal right to
publish the photo and editorial.

“I don't think any newspaper should ever be discontinued as punishment for
things students have written, especially when what they've written about is the
defense of free speech and what they have said is absolutely correct,” said
Terry Francke, general counsel of the nonprofit Californians Aware, which
advocates for First Amendment issues.

Nevertheless, state law does not require schools to fund student newspapers
or elective journalism classes, Francke said.

The school principal said officials had been considering eliminating the
newspaper before it published the controversial photo. The high school is
looking for ways to save money because it expects to get less from the state in
the next school year, Woollard said.

The students' decision to showcase flag-burning “cements the decision” to
pull funding from the newspaper, he said.

The newspaper's cover was a collage of photographs, some of which showed
students in what appeared to be prom attire. Prominently displayed at the top of
the collage was a photograph of a student holding a flag pole, with the American
flag burning at its edge.

Kennedy said Champagne edited his column and approved the photo

Media experts said it was troubling that the school would shut down the
newspaper because administrators did not like what was published.

“I'm a little concerned the decision may be based more on the content of the
publication than the fiscal reasons,” said Jim Ewert, legal counsel at the
California Newspaper Publishers Association. “It could be construed as a
violation of student rights if it's considered to be a punishment to their

Woollard did not return a telephone message left for him in time for this

The Redding controversy is the latest example in recent years of high school
and college administrators in California attempting to censure student-run
newspapers or punish those who oversee them.

In Los Angeles, a high school newspaper adviser was removed after he refused
to withdraw a November 2006 student editorial criticizing random searches on
campus. In 2003, Novato journalism teacher Ronnie Campagna was similarly
replaced when the student newspaper published stories critical of San Marin High

The incidents have prompted California lawmakers to seek protections for
student newspapers, with the latest bill focused on high school and college
journalism instructors.

A bill by Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco would make it
illegal to dismiss, transfer or otherwise punish teachers for protecting
students' free-speech rights. The bill passed the Senate in April and was
approved 10-0 yesterday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

It must pass the full Assembly before it would go to Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger. If the governor then signed it, the law would take effect in

Yee spokesman Adam Keigwin said the senator would look into the decision by
the Shasta High School principal to stop publishing the newspaper. But he also
said lawmakers cannot force schools to fund publications.

“Student newspapers often serve as the only watchdog on campus,” Keigwin
said. “If it's truly not an issue of money, it's disappointing a school district
would dissolve a journalism program because they don't like the content.”

Yee also wrote a 2006 law that prohibits college administrators from
censoring student newspapers or disciplining students for engaging in speech or
press activities.

He took up the cause after the general counsel of the California State
University system issued a memo suggesting campus presidents may “have more
latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized student

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