Once again, the Bruin Voice has proven its slogan “The Voice shall not be silenced!” to be true. In 2013, 2010, and, even back as far as 1992, the Lodi Unified School District attempted to censor various articles, and every time, the fearless Bruin Voice adviser, Kathi Duffel, alongside her old friend, the First Amendment, proved the District wrong. Duffel, backed by hundreds of adoring students and 33 years of teaching for the district, has never lost a battle with LUSD, and she isn’t going to end her winning streak any time soon.
For the April 2019 issue of the Bruin Voice, news editor Bailey Kirkeby pitched a unique story — she wanted to profile Caitlin Fink, an 18-year-old Bear Creek senior who had gained local infamy for starting a career in the adult entertainment industry. Kirkeby insisted the story was not merely sensational in nature: Fink, who had been a victim of bullying for some time due to her career choice, deserved a voice just like anyone else. To deny Fink an outlet to express her complex tale of grief, endurance, and joy would be borderline neglectful on the newspaper’s behalf.
After all, part of our job as newswriters is to find the hot topics students are clamoring about (be it joyous, saddening or petrifying) and the report said news in an unbiased, impartial manner to better inform our audience: the students. By reporting on Fink, Kirkeby was doing just that — her job.
Judging by their response, the district didn’t think that. A staff member caught wind of the pitch and told Fink’s parents, from whom she is estranged, about the story — a violation of Caitlin’s privacy rights. She had no obligation to tell her parents about the story. Fink is 18, so her work is legally sound.
Washer contacted Duffel on April 11 and demanded that Duffel “refrain from publishing the article prior to the District’s review and approval” until she “provide[s] a copy of the article to me [Cathy Washer].” Should Duffel — a beloved, revered and devoted BCHS English and Journalism teacher for 28 years — refuse, Washer wrote that she “may be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.”
The District contended that the story did not follow Education Code section 48907, an Ed. Code provision that protects students’ free speech except in very specific cases, such as defamation or obscenity.
Duffel extended an olive branch to the district by agreeing to have a third party legal review of the article, with Duffel saying to Washer that “we will … agree to not publish the story until an independent attorney designated by the [Student Law Press Center] has previewed the article for your stated concerns.”
Have you noticed the problem with this situation? LUSD never read the article, so how could they know whether or not the story violated any part of Ed. Code 48907? That’s right – the District’s argument was based on mere speculation and assumption! They have no legal backing, a fact that was evident enough to the third party attorney who reviewed the article and issued his used final approval to the district on Tuesday.
Moreso, the story itself is not obscene. It is not morally indecent, and it does not seek to describe sexual activity in vivid, graphic detail, as the District (somehow) characterizes.
Kirkeby aims only to highlight the trials, obstacles, and risks Caitlyn has endured and her strength in overcoming each. The story discusses her career in the adult industry, but to say even the informational mention of the sex industry is obscene is a gross mischaracterization of the story’s well-meaning, inspirational core message, written to speak intimately to Bear Creek students who may find themselves in similar situations as Caitlin did.
Around this time, LUSD got desperate, wobbling around without a leg to stand on, and everyone involved knew. They resorted to backhand measures, attempting to coax Duffel to read a “confidential” letter sent to the district from Caitlin’s parents that, upon reading, would force Duffel into silence under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a law designed to protect a student’s information. Again, the sharing of this confidential letter raises privacy rights violations on the district’s part. Unsurprisingly, Duffel didn’t take the bait. When all is said and done, the Bruin Voice will issue an FOIA request to see just how much money — your money — the district spent on attorney fees to fight this baseless claim.
Duffel was also approached by Bear Creek’s School Resource Officer and bombarded with questions about the story, which now included — falsely — sex trafficking and distributing porn to minors; when she asked the reason behind the inquiries, Officer Camarena admitted he was sent by his superior officer who wanted a copy of the article. We later learned that Lt. Augustine Telly had contacted Principal Harrell the week prior to inquiring about the story. The District’s intimidation tactics appear to us as hopeless ploys to bully or trick Duffel into giving up the story — but the 2015 recipient of the James Madison Freedom of Information Award would never waver.
Student journalists, of course, enjoy writing about the hottest movies and the basketball team’s winning streak. There is, however, another side to our job: we act as the “watchdogs” of the district, bringing LUSD’s errors into the light to facilitate change or improvement, and this legal fray couldn’t be a better civics lesson or a more astute example of the District’s inability to understand the law and follow the Board’s own procedures.
So, to hold a mirror up to the District, Duffel sought out her contacts at local news stations. The news reporters came swarming to Bear Creek and our fight against censorship now has been broadcasted to thousands by accomplished news institutions such as The Washington Post, The Chronicle and The Sacramento Bee, and readers all across California and the nation have rallied in support of those under the impenetrable protection of the First Amendment.
The editors of The Bruin Voice implore you: stand with the students who merely sought to give a silenced student a voice and found themselves consequently silenced. Stand on the side of the Constitution, which gives us the legal right to tell Caitlin’s story. Stand with the loyal Bear Creek teacher with more intellect in her fingertips that any lackluster LUSD Board member. Stand with The Bruin Voice, because the Voice shall not be silenced!