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Student newspaper shut down after publishing flag-burning photo

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online staff

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 expression.

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 Press.

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 said.

Judy Champagne, the Volcano's faculty adviser, told the Record Searchlight 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 Searchlight: "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 collage.

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 activities."

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

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 School.

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 January.

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 newspapers."

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