BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A Kern County judge declined to immediately overrule a high school principal’s decision to censor student newspaper articles on homosexuality, saying the issue deserved a full review.
“This is an important issue that would require an opportunity to have a full and complete hearing,” Kern County Superior Court Judge Arthur E. Wallace said yesterday after denying the plaintiffs’ request for an emergency order that would have allowed the articles to be published in The Kernal’s May 27 year-end issue.
The journalists from East Bakersfield High School sued the Kern High School District on May 19, after Principal John Gibson decided they couldn’t run five articles discussing subjects such as gay students’ relationships with their parents, whether homosexuality is biologically determined, and how it felt to come out.
Gathered in the Central Valley’s wilting heat after school, the students involved talked about their disappointment in the judge’s decision.
“It’s our story; it’s our voice,” said Janet Rangel, a senior who was interviewed for the pieces. “We won’t be able to read it as a class.”
School officials said they simply could not be responsible for helping to incite violence or harassment by allowing the articles to be published. Gibson didn’t respond to repeated calls for comment.
“If one of these people is heckled or harassed, that’s an unlawful act,” said John Szewczyk, an attorney for the school district. “Statements have been made that these students are out, but we have no proof of that.”
He also said there were unspecified “incidents” concerning students on campus that caused school officials concern.
Bakersfield is a conservative community in California’s agricultural Central Valley, but students at East Bakersfield High said they haven’t known of any threats against students who are already open about their sexual orientation, and whose names and photos are appearing in news articles around the country.
“These people have been out to their school, to the community here in Bakersfield, and to the state and country now,” said Joel Paramo, the student paper’s editor-in-chief. “Do they want to see them hold hands in public and make out? We could get a lot of people together for a demonstration of homosexuality, if that’s what it takes.”
Student reporters also obtained written permission from those they interviewed and from the parents of those who were minors.
“The students don’t have to choose between free expression and their safety. They have a right to both,” said attorney Christine Sun, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the suit.
She added that school officials have not taken any other measures to protect these students from perceived threats, such as contacting their parents or speaking to campus law enforcement.
Earlier this week, Gibson agreed to allow publication of the series if the names and photos of students involved were withheld. The newspaper staff rejected the offer.
“It’s the student’s names, their photographs, that make our readers connect with them,” said Maria Krauter, editor of the paper’s feature section, where the articles would have run.
What ultimately happens in this case will impact other high school campuses, where “we’re seeing a lot of censorship of gay and lesbian issues,” said Sun, who is working on similar issues in other high schools around the state.
Students have decided move forward with the case and seek another hearing, the ACLU said.
“We’re definitely going to try to get these articles out,” Paramo said.