Student newspaper in Stockton wins right to publish controversial story after objections from school district

STOCKTON, Calif. (KGO) -- On Friday, students in the Lodi School District are celebrating what they say is a win for control of their school newspaper and for the first amendment.



"We didn't think it was controversial really," said Gabriella Backus.

That is the innocence of youth talking. Backus is editor-in-chief of the Bruin Newspaper at Bear Creek High in Stockton-- which is actually part of the Lodi School District. Last month, a reporter at the paper wrote a profile of an 18-year-old student who works in the porn industry, and when administrators found out they tried to squash the story.

"Without even reviewing the article they decided it was obscene and didn't fit the laws on obscenity," Backus said.

The story was finally published Friday, but not on the front page, it's inside on page five. However, it was one of the best known stories in town before it went to print.

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Kathy Duffel is the veteran english teacher who runs the journalism program. She defended the students' right to publish under the first amendment. That, she says, is when the district started playing rough.

"To stand outside your classroom door and be handed a letter that says you could be dismissed-- I want to cry just saying it. It's upsetting," Duffel said.

But the district agreed to let Duffel hire an independent attorney to determine if the article violated a state law that allows school districts to regulate obscene material. The lawyer said it did not.

And, on Friday, publication day for the story, the district issued this statement saying, "Lodi Unified is very pleased that the process we have in engaged in regarding the Bear Creek High newspaper has resulted in a statement that meets the legal requirement."

Duffel says the result has been a teaching moment for her students.

"Free speech is a term that gets tossed around all the time, but what does it really mean to have your voice silenced. What does that really feel like?"

Duffel says she's fought and won similar battles with the district since the early 90's. She hopes they've finally learned the lesson.
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