Sex Ed Becomes a Lesson in Press Freedom

Krystal Meyers was astonished when she returned for her senior year at Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee this September -- three of her classmates were pregnant.

The 17-year-old was enrolled in her first journalism class, and decided to write an article to help educate her peers about birth control. "This is really affecting us and this should really go out," she told ABC News.

But when that article was published last week in the Oak Leaf, the monthly school newspaper, it was Meyers who got the lesson and an even bigger surprise.

Late last Tuesday, school officials began confiscating all 1,800 copies of the paper at the recommendation of principal Becky Ervin, before they could be distributed to the student body.

Superintendent Tom Bailey said the papers were seized because of an article on birth control as well as a two-page feature about tattoos and body piercing.

The seizure has caught the attention of First Amendment specialists, including the Student Press Law Center, in Arlington, Va., which is advising Oak Leaf staffers.

"People need to know we are being censored and it's not right at all," Meyers said.

Mike Hiestand of the SPLC said "nothing in these articles [is] unlawful ... students are trying to provide information on a topic that's important to them."

Bailey told the web site of the Knoxville News Sentinel: "The action of the principal was totally appropriate... The paper won't go out in the form that it's in right now.''

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the right of public high school administrators to censor stories from school-sponsored student newspapers.

Two-Sided Argument

Oak Leaf's editor Brittany Thomas said the objections to Meyers' article amounted to a concern over explicit language describing two forms of birth control most commonly practiced among students -- condoms and withdrawal -- as well as information on contraception, which Tennessee law allows students to get without notifying parents.

"We have a responsibility to the public to do the right thing," Bailey told The Associated Press. "We've got 14-year-olds that read the newspaper."

But Meyers said, "kids use worse language and I used medical language and quoted a doctor. If this man has a Ph.D. and knows what he's talking about, why can't it be in there?"

Thomas added that those people who the principal feared might not be mature enough to read such text would also be the kind of people they want to reach. "These are things a lot of people don't know and should know," she said.

Thomas said there were concerns about the tattoo article because it included five pictures of tattoos, and their student owners' names -- and at least four of the students are under the legal age for obtaining tattoos.

Bailey told The Associated Press, "I have a problem with the idea of putting something in the paper that makes us a part of hiding something from the parents."

Bailey's office refused comment to ABC News, promising a statement today. Thomas accused school officials of constantly "changing their story and they won't put it in writing for me."

A Compromise

Thomas is negotiating with school officials to release the paper. She says it needs to go out as soon as possible because it includes advertisements with dated coupons.

Thomas said she had agreed to say that the student owners of the tattoos displayed in the article would remain nameless.

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