by Adam Goldstein
New Media Legal Fellow at the Student Press Law Center:
There’s a censorship situation brewing in Utah, and if you’re in the state, you may want to contact the Utah State Office of Education, the state Attorney General’s office, and/or the high school involved to express your thoughts.
Essentially, a parent of a student at Lone Peak High School–who runs a "family values" not-for-profit–has asked the state Attorney General and the State Office of Education to "look into" whether three articles broke state laws limiting the content of sex education classes.
The articles that triggered the complaint are a pro/con pair of opinion pieces on the school’s new Gay-Straight Alliance Club (with the con opinion written by the complaining parent’s daughter) and one on the HPV vaccine (written by the same author of the pro-GSA opinion).
The press release from this organization, the Standard of Liberty, states that the organization believes these articles violated the following state laws:
"The Utah FERPA law (Utah Code 53A-13-301 & 302) forbids schools from allowing any activity which results in students revealing information concerning their sexual behavior, orientation or attitudes. Utah Education law (Utah Code 53A-13-101) requires that schools stress the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage, and also forbids advocacy of homosexuality and of sexual activity outside of marriage."
(See the full release online HERE)
Actually reading the laws, however, shows they discuss dramatically different things. 53A-13-301 states
EMPLOYEES AND AGENTS of the state’s public education system shall protect the privacy of students, their parents, and their families, and support parental involvement in the education of their children through compliance with the protections provided for family and student privacy under Section 53A-13-302 and the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and related provisions under 20 U.S.C. 1232 (g) and (h), in the administration and operation of all public school programs, regardless of the source of funding.
In other words, 301 and 302 don’t prohibit students from releasing information about themselves, let alone compel the school to prohibit students from doing so. Just like its federal counterpart, Utah’s FERPA limits the actions of school employees and agents–and no one else.
Similarly, 53A-13-101 prohibits a school board from adopting curricular materials that instruct in "the advocacy of homosexuality." It doesn’t apply to the actions of anyone but the school board; it doesn’t apply in any context but in the adoption of instructional materials; and even in that context, it doesn’t prohibit neutral discussion of homosexuality.
The Standard of Liberty press release quotes the group’s founder/parent:
Said Graham, “Sex activists are targeting kids. They know that high school newspapers can be highly effective carriers of anti-parent, pro-sex propaganda. School administrators are either complicit or clueless. The kids’ articles should be about sports, music, dances, academics, noise in the halls and lunch room menus. What in the world are school administrators thinking allowing twisted articles about homosexuality, genital warts and infections, rape, and promiscuity for minors from age 14 to read as facts? They seem to be purposely subverting wholesomeness, traditional morality, and parents’ rights.[…}"
According to the Web site of the student newspaper in question, The Lone Peak Crusader, the paper "has been established as a forum for student expression." The forum statement is the most prominent item on the site, save for the masthead. See http:/www.lonepeak.alpinedistrict.org/Crusader/ .
The view of the Student Press Law Center is that the complaining parent’s position it utterly without merit. The actions of the newspaper do not violate the laws cited (or any other laws of which I am aware), nor could anything printed in the school paper ever violate laws that limit the actions of school officials. Furthermore, as the newspaper has been established as a forum for student expression, the editors have the right to determine the appropriate content within the bounds of the First Amendment.
More importantly, this call for censorship violates basic notions of education and poses a threat to the continued practice of journalism in high schools in Utah. It is pedagogically unsound for anyone to seek to restrain debate and discussion in schools on ideological grounds, regardless of the ideology behind that effort. Encouraging state agents, such as public school employees, to censor student newspapers would be a serious blow to the practice and understanding of journalism in those schools.
While the students are in the right, it is important that those who oppose this type of censorship by intimidation speak out in support of free expression. In a vacuum, a state employee seeking to placate a complaining parent may not immediately consider the civil rights of the students. If you’re in Utah, contacting the State Office of Education, Attorney General’s office, and the school can help avoid any rash reactions.
Contact these individuals and groups to voice your support of free speech in Utah schools:
Utah State Office of Education
250 East 500 South
P O Box 144200
Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-4200
Office of the Attorney General
Utah State Capitol Complex
East Office Bldg, Suite 320
Salt Lake City, UT 84114-2320
General Office Numbers: (801) 366-0260, (801) 538-9600, (801) 366-0300
Toll Free within the State of Utah: (800) AG4 INFO (244-4636)
Dr. Chip Koop, Principal
Lone Peak High School
10189 N. 4800 W.
Highland, UT 84003
From the Daily Herald (Utah): "Can students talk about sex?"
A parent and president of a local family values organization says Highland’s Lone Peak High School broke the law when the school newspaper published articles dealing with sex.
Stephen Graham, president of the Standard of Liberty Foundation, has asked the State Office of Education and the state Attorney General’s Office to look into three articles that have appeared in The Lone Peak Crusader.
From the Deseret News: "School paper is accused of breaking law"
HIGHLAND – Parents of a Lone Peak High School student are accusing the school newspaper of breaking Utah’s privacy and sex education laws.
Stephen Graham, a Utah County man who also is the head of a nonprofit organization that advocates conservative ideas and traditional values, sent letters to the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the Utah State Office of Education about pieces in the publication he found questionable.