A Stockton high school has become the site of a debate around the First Amendment.
The source of the debate is a newspaper profile on student Caitlin Fink, an 18-year-old senior at Bear Creek High School who has begun working in the adult entertainment industry. The Bruin Voice student newspaper decided to run with the story after Fink agreed, as she thought it could clear up some hurtful rumors spreading on campus. When the Lodi Unified School District superintendent caught wind of the story, they asked to see a copy before it was published. The paper declined. With the newspaper’s staff advisor at risk of disciplinary action, they published the story on Friday, May 3—which happened to be World Press Freedom Day.
It wasn’t the first time the Bruin Voice advisor Kathi Duffel has butted heads with the district over a story the newspaper published. The paper faced off with a Bear Creek principal over a story about misplaced keys in 2011. In 2017, the superintendent confiscated over a thousand copies of an issue that featured a story about discrepancies in its safety policy. Leading up to the publication of the story about Fink, Duffel’s job was on the line.
With the story picked up by media locally and nationwide, advisor Kathi Duffel and editor-in-cheif Gabi Backus discuss the importance of maintaining the integrity and independence of the Bruin Voice. Here are highlights from their conversation.
On the legal test the district needed to meet to preview the article
Duffel: We are a public forum. The district didn't seem to understand that either. The district states in its own Lodi Unified School District policy, a school newspaper is a medium for publishing the news, a public forum for discussing current events of interest to students. So under that definition we are under the Tinker ruling, the Tinker test, which was the famous 1969 case Tinker vs. Des Moines, and it ruled that the only time that a school district can infringe on school speech is when it has reason to believe that such expression will substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students. The district did not meet that standard in its request to us to preview the article and that is why we respectfully decline that request.
On why the story has prompted controversy and garnered national attention
Backus: I think there's two separate issues here. The first one is that pornography as a whole has been so taboo, as Ms. Duffel said earlier, that we are just unwilling to talk about it in any capacity, even if it's a professional journalism capacity.
I mean the district called it obscene without even having read the article or knowing what was in it, simply because it talked about pornography, and that's a broader issue regarding what we as Americans view as acceptable in society, when really as this article tries to highlight, there should be much less issue with the adult entertainment industry than there is.
The other issue here is that in my opinion we have seen a lot of conflation between the issue of pornography and the issue of censorship. As the editors, we see that there is a completely different issue between the issue of prior restraint and people not understanding how serious that is.
On why it’s difficult to get people to take prior restraint seriously
Backus: In relation to the prior restraint, it's hard to get students and even older people like parents to understand how serious it is. I think particularly through my friends and just our student body, we don't understand how serious it is, to be so willing to give away our rights.
We become so submissive and complacent. You might think of it as kind of like, for example, when students are so willing to sign away rights in a social media contract. You know we just click the Terms of Service and press OK. And we're not willing to say, 'Wait, maybe I'm giving away some rights that I shouldn't.' So in that sense we're too comfortable with the idea of easing into prior restraint. And I think that's made it very difficult for us to get the issue of censorship, to make it more the headline issue than the pornography.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.