School newspaper gets Lodi district’s OK to publish story about student who works in porn

High school students fight Lodi district over story about student in adult entertainment

A Lodi high school newspaper battling its school district to publish a story deemed potentially obscene by administrators said it received the green light Wednesday from an independent attorney.
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A Lodi high school newspaper battling its school district to publish a story deemed potentially obscene by administrators said it received the green light Wednesday from an independent attorney.

The Lodi Unified School District says it will not intervene in a high school newspaper’s decision to publish a story about a student who works in the adult entertainment industry.

The decision comes after a battle over free speech between district officials and The Bruin Voice at Bear Creek High School in Stockton. After an attorney reviewed the story, Lodi Unified said Wednesday that “on that basis (the district) will not prevent its publication.”

The Bruin Voice last month said it planned to publish the story, about an 18-year-old student who makes a living performing in legal online adult entertainment, on May 3.

The district sent a letter to Kathi Duffel, journalism adviser for The Bruin Voice, on April 11 saying it wanted to review the story over concerns it could violate the education code.

But Duffel refused, citing freedom of speech and calling the district’s demand a “gross and broad overreach.”

Education Code Section 48907 upholds free speech for student journalists unless the content is obscene, libelous, or encourages students to commit crimes.

According to an April 18 letter to Duffel from Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer, the district was concerned that the story would include defamatory remarks about the subject’s family and her upbringing, and obscene information about pornography. It questioned whether the student editor, Bailey Kirkeby, was able to verify the student was of legal age when the adult productions were made.

The district agreed to a request from Duffel to have an attorney review the story over the legal concerns.

Duffel contacted the Student Press Law Center, which connected her to attorney Matthew Cate.

Although the two sides disagree whether the review was independent, Cate sent an 11-page letter to the district on April 30 saying he found nothing of concern in the story.

“The bottom line is there are no false statements or facts about any identifiable person that could cause anyone harm,” Cate said, explaining his conclusion that the article was not defamatory.

The story, according to Kirkeby, primarily focuses on the hardships the student experienced, such as failing freshman year.

“For something to be obscene, it has to include patently offensive depiction or description of sexual conduct. The article is not about what she does for a living,” Cate said. “It’s not about adult scenes or poses. It’s about a person who works in the industry and the various risks and judgments she confronts as someone in the industry.”

The article will be published Friday on The Bruin Voice’s webpage.

The district said that because it has not previewed the story, it does not endorse it.

“The District has determined that it will rely on the promises Mrs. Duffel’s personal attorney has made on her behalf regarding the content of the article and on that basis will not prevent its publication,” a statement from the district said. “However, the District does not agree with all aspects of the legal opinion provided by the attorney and is disappointed that an independent review was not provided as agreed to by the District and Mrs. Duffel.”

Cate said the law is clear, and the district can’t deny the journalism adviser’s authority to approve publication.

“The type of review process the school wanted to engage in is one that chills the exercise of the students’ right to free speech,” said Cate. “After the article comes out, and everyone reads it, they are going to wonder, ‘What was that all about?’”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.