OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – In November, Oak Ridge High School Principal Becky Ervin ordered the seizure of the school newspaper the Oak Leaf due to articles detailing various birth control methods and a feature about students with tattoos and body piercings. School officials allegedly searched teachers’ classrooms and desks after hours to confiscate copies of the paper.
Oak Ridge School Superintendent Tom Bailey backed up the principal’s actions and said the feature about tattoos and body piercing, which featured a photo of an unnamed student showing a tattoo that the student’s parents didn’t know about was one concern, and the article on birth control needed to be revised so it would be acceptable to the entire student body.
“We’ve got 14-year-olds that read the newspaper, and we have a responsibility to the public to do the right thing,” Bailey said.
The alleged problems with the article written by student Krystal Meyers were the passages stating that some Oak Ridge High students may be having sex and listed the success rates of different birth control methods. It also reported that contraceptives are available from medical professionals.
Student and Oak Leaf Editor Brittany Thomas estimated that school officials confiscated about 1,800 copies of the paper.
The board of the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists responded immediately to the action taken by the school, contacting First Amendment organizations and issuing an open letter opposing the action taken by the school system, calling for them to reconsider their position.
“The East Tennessee chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists strongly opposes — and expresses disappointment — that Oak Ridge High School administrators censored the student newspaper. This action contradicts not only the citizenship values that we seek to instill in young people, but also the tradition of academic excellence touted on the Oak Ridge High Web site,” said ETSPJ President Ed Hooper.
“The issue of teenage pregnancies is one well known to East Tennessee families and teenagers. It showed responsibility on the part of Oak Leaf Editor Brittany Thomas to recognize this fact and utilize the high school newspaper to bring this issue out of the closet and into the open at Oak Ridge High School. The actions of seizing the paper have changed the issue from one of health and safety and placed it in the realm of civics, where this example has illustrated to students that the First Amendment Right of Freedom of the Press is only guaranteed to those who own one.”
National President of the Society of Professional Journalist David Carlson condemned the censorship by Oak Ridge School officials.
“This is an example — a bad example — of school officials censoring news content simply because they disagree with it,” Carlson said. “It appears the students tried to do good journalism, and the administration is holding them back.”
Oak Ridge High School English teacher and newspaper adviser Wanda Grooms said this was the first time the award-winning student newspaper had been confiscated. She later was ordered by school officials shortly after her remarks to not discuss the issue with the media.
In a news release issued from the superintendent’s office Nov. 29, Tom Baily said the nespaper will remain banned and a revised version of the Oak Leaf would be distributed. The paper was reissued with no mention of the controversy.