MCPS: Topless photos, lewd language in Willard High newspaper violated policy

February 2, 2016 – Missoulian


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A Missoula County Public Schools district investigation has determined a recent edition of a student newspaper violated board policy by including photographs of “partially nude women perceived to be students” and “lewd and vulgar language.”

The district has recalled all copies of the January edition of the Willard Wire, a publication created by students at Willard Alternative High School, which is distributed to all four public high schools in Missoula as well as to several businesses that advertise in the paper.

The edition featured a cover story on the “Free the Nipple” movement, and the cover photograph showed several topless men and women with red dots covering their nipples and their faces cropped out. An editorial inside by student Chase Boehmler was accompanied by a similar photo of a fully topless woman and man. Boehmler’s editorial asked, among other things, “why should gender define the appropriateness of your chest?”

The district found that a separate, attributed article titled “Misconceptions SLAMMED” used lewd and vulgar language referencing sexual acts to make an argument in support of public breast-feeding.

“MCPS supports student voices and student exploration of challenging topics handled with respect to standards for civil and mature discourse,” said Superintendent Mark Thane. “On a daily basis, our teachers work with students to develop critical thinking skills and explore challenging topics in a way that can further understanding and avoid polarization or discrimination.”

The district concluded that the photos and the lewd language violated MCPS Board Policy 3221, which states that materials in school-sponsored publications “may not be libelous, obscene, or profane” and that “school authorities may edit or delete material which is inconsistent with this policy.”

Although issues of the Wire contain a paragraph stating the newspaper does not receive funding from the district and therefore has more editorial freedom, the district said the claim is false.

“The Willard Wire is published by students attending the Journalism class at the Willard Alternative High School Program and is directly linked to district curriculum,” according to the district’s statement. “In addition, the district found that Willard Wire is a district-funded publication and is therefore covered by the board policy. MCPS curriculum standards extend to those actively taking courses where publications are produced as well as the student audiences for the publications.”

Student speech does have First Amendment protection, but it is different than that offered outside of the school, according to MCPS. The district cited three Supreme Court decisions as precedent in determining that students publications must align with district curriculum: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School (1969), Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988).

“The editorial Free the Nipple is well reasoned and provides an avenue for reasonable discourse on a controversial topic,” according to the district’s statement. “It is the use of photographs of partially nude women perceived to be students that violates board policy.”

Because school-sponsored publications are considered to be a part of curriculum, school staff are required to take an active role in making sure they are consistent with the curriculum.

“The proper administrative or teacher response in these circumstances would be to delay the printing or not allowing the printing until the language can be corrected and the photos can be edited or replaced,” Thane said. “Those actions were not taken by the teacher of the course nor the principal.”

Hatton Littman, director of technology and communications at MCPS, said Thane would comment Tuesday on whether the district intends to take disciplinary action against Lisa Waller, who advises the Wire staff, or Willard Principal Jane Bennett.