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.

But Meyers has refused to make the changes required by school officials, and Thomas said Meyers' article would be replaced by a white space with a short amount of text stating that "the writer felt revisions that the principal required would hurt the integrity of the story."

Meyers said a revised article "wouldn't be from me and I don't think it would be right for her [the principal] to tell me it was an either-or situation."

The message is getting out anyway. Martha Whittingham of the school's parent-teacher-student organization said she had seen the articles online, and Thomas said some students had snuck some copies out. She and Meyers also said they are considering publishing the article off-campus and distributing it independently.

"It's really exciting to see people who usually don't want to read get excited about this story," Thomas said.

When it comes to sex education, freedom of the press should be absolute, said Cynthia Dailard of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit for sexual and reproductive health.

"There is no evidence that denying kids about sex or contraception is in any way protective," she said.

Thomas says even if the paper is printed, there may continue to be a court fight. "Right now what we're fighting is the principal's right to do it," she said.

Reflecting on her six remaining months of high school, she added: "Whatever comes of this, I'm not going to experience. It's more for future generations."

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