Sunday, November 13, 2005

Censorchimps: The Florida Sub-Species

The principal of Ridgeview High School (website here) in Orange Park, Florida, has blocked publication of the school's newspaper because of a student-written column called, "Homosexuality Is Not A Choice." This isn't the first time that this district has been involved in a sex-related controversy:
Katie Thompson, a 17-year-old senior, wrote the column "Homosexuality is not a Choice," for the Oct. 10 edition of the student newspaper at Ridgeview High School. Ridgeview is located in Clay County, about 12 miles south of Jacksonville.

Thompson, who is bisexual, said her teacher approved the 300-word essay, but Principal Toni McCabe objected and claimed the subject was "too mature for a high school audience."

Telephone calls Friday to McCabe, Clay County School Superintendent David Owens, school spokeswoman Darlene Mahla, all five School Board members and Thompson's home were not immediately returned.

According to an e-mail sent by Mahla to School Board members, the school principal was able to intercept the newspaper, Panther Prints, before it went to students.

"A member of the school's newspaper staff wrote an article that was placed in the opinion section of the newspaper about her sexuality as a lesbian and her Christian views," said the e-mail obtained by The Florida Times-Union.

The newspaper also obtained a copy of Thompson's column, which reads in part:

"Homosexuals do not choose to be the way they are. It is a biological stimulation of the brain. ... Some individuals think that they, with their extreme religious beliefs, can turn homosexuals to a heterosexual status. Those people, along with other homophobes in our country, set up counseling groups for homosexuals to try to change them."

Thompson said she was called to McCabe's office and told the newspaper would not be circulated because of her article.

"I didn't understand why - there's no reason to pull this. It wasn't overtly sexual or obscene or racist," she told The Florida Times-Union.

The student made copies of the article and began distributing it over lunch. She was again called back to McCabe's office and threatened with suspension

Jo Thompson, Katie's mother, said district officials are narrow-minded about issues of homosexuality and repeatedly have mishandled similar situations.

The newspaper censorship is the third time the district has been embroiled in controversy over sexual orientation issues.

Last February, the principal at Fleming Island High School stopped the yearbook from running the senior portrait of an self-described lesbian because she posed for the photo in a tuxedo top and bow-tie outfit provided for boys rather than the gown-like drape and pearls provided for girls.

Principal Sam Ward cited a dress code violation and removed her picture from the yearbook. Both the School Board and superintendent supported his decision. [Ed's Note: see that story here.]

After the issue drew national attention and Davis threatened to sue, the School Board approved an out-of-court settlement that revised the photo policy and added the term "sexual orientation" to anti-discrimination policies and training.

On Sept. 29, sixth-grade teacher Larry Eger resigned from Swimming Pen Elementary School while under investigation by the district. Eger is accused of punishing two boys by bringing them to the front of the classroom and telling them to hold hands. They refused and then Eger told them to sit knee-to-knee. He reportedly called them gay.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said a 1988 Supreme Court ruling gives school officials the power to censor content if there is a reasonable educational justification.

"But to silence student expression because you disagree with their view, that is virtually never permissible," Goodman said Friday.

"This is clearly an issue there is a lot of disagreement about. What school officials have to accept is these issues are a part of life, part of the American debate," Goodman said.
The administrators of Ridgeview High would have done better if they had gone ahead and permitted the publication of the paper. An eyebrow or two would have doubtlessly been raised, and perhaps there would be some muttered protests. All of which would soon be forgotten. By making this a censorship issue, the school has guaranteed that the controversy would assume much wider proportions.
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