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Informative or inappropriate?

Photo By: Marit Barton/SpeciAL TO THE TOWN CRIER
Photo Marit Barton/Special To The Town Crier

Students in the audience show their support for The Oracle at last week’s board of trustees meeting.

Call it an elaborate speech and debate class: Last week’s Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting pitted high school journalists and their adult sympathizers against parents and other residents concerned over inappropriate subject matter and language in the Mountain View High School student newspaper, The Oracle.

The controversy drew a full house March 12 to the Mountain View High theater, including local television crews. More than 40 speakers offered their views.

At issue was a series of articles on high school students and sex published in a February edition of The Oracle. Depending on whom you asked, the articles were either informative and reflective of student interests or filled with prurient descriptions that never should have seen the light of day.

Diverging views

Following presentations by the journalism departments at Mountain View High and Los Altos High, which publishes The Talon, parents and students exchanged their divergent views.

Parent Moe De Luca said the articles were in violation of the student journalism classes’ code of ethics, which call to avoid “pandering to lurid curiosity.” He added that if such language appeared in a corporate newsletter, the writers would be fired “in a New York second.”

The two-page spread in question, titled “Sex & Relationships,” offered information on birth control along with statistics on the percentage of sexually active high school students. A satirical article, “Cosmo for Men,” also was an issue with some parents. It featured a photo of high school baseball players posing provocatively.

The journalism students, many on the current staff of The Oracle, defended their work as educational and written in an entertaining way.

The broader issues of the First Amendment and freedom of expression came into play. The district’s legal counsel, Chris Keiner, said student journalism is “guarded” and given broad freedoms by the state Education Code.

Superintendent Barry Groves has the option of “prior restraint” – pulling material prior to publication – but that option, Keiner said, is rarely exercised.

Groves said he “would not have censored anything” the paper’s staff wrote.

Oracle writer Abby Cunniff figured some parents were offended by a “crass” term she used. (Editor’s note: The Town Crier is choosing not to reveal the suggestive language used. Those seeking more information can refer to The Oracle’s website.)

“A lot of parents didn’t know what it meant,” she said.

Cunniff added that censorship of such articles amounts to “hindering an open, honest conversation about sex that is really needed.”

“We did not take the issue of sex lightly at all,” said Oracle Focus editor Chloe Tarrasch.

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” echoed parents on more than one occasion.

One parent noted that the language in last month’s Oracle was so bad, copies that were circulated at Blach Intermediate School were removed.

Michael Long, Mountain View High parent and former sheriff’s deputy, said criminals become who they are in part because they are “sidetracked by sexual pornography.”

“The things we promote (in the student newspaper) should be uplifting and responsible,” he said.

Former Los Altos City Councilman Ron Packard was concerned by another Oracle article he saw (“Teens Smoke at Home,” in the September issue) “that encourages or condones criminal activity.”

“Take a serious look at professional ethics and move the bar up,” Packard advised the district board.

But Fred Turner, a Stanford professor and former writer with the Boston Globe, told the board, “These folks are doing exactly what good journalists do.”

Good judgment – or lack thereof?

Judy Levy, a Sunnyvale teacher named a high school Journalism Teacher of the Year, referred to opponents when she said, “Ignorance and censorship won’t help – knowledge and good judgment will.”

But judgment, or lack thereof, was Von Packard’s concern.

“Model ethics do not allow for profane language,” he said. “We should not be fooling ourselves into thinking this adheres to a code of ethics.”

Trustee Phil Faillace asked legal counsel Keiner whether parents could review Oracle copy before print. Keiner said that action is against state law.

“What we have here,” Faillace said, “is the kind of discussion – an exchange of ideas – that we should encourage.”

He urged parents opposed to the articles to write a letter to the editor.

“I’m proud that the Oracle writer and editor stood tall,” said Trustee Joe Mitchner. “The overwhelming majority of content in The Oracle is excellent.”

The board took no action, despite calls for more restrictions on content.

“We have a solid student publication board policy based on the California School Board Association template covering California Education Code,” Groves said following the meeting. “I have faith in our sites to make good decisions regarding student publications. If there are any appeals as to a decision to publish, we will hear those appeals.”

Groves said the district would continue to recommend that people with questions about the student publications’ style or content contact the schools directly.

“I continue to be proud of the good work done by our student journalists on both The Talon and The Oracle,” he said.

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