CORTEZ – Two Montezuma-Cortez High School students made provocative remarks in the school newspaper when asked what they would be and why if reincarnated.
On the opinion page of the November 2013 Panther Press, a senior was quoted as saying he would want to be reincarnated as an “emotionally wrecked,” “random chick” so he could “complain and get away with everything.” Another senior was quoted as saying he would prefer to be reincarnated as a “big black guy” so he could “rob people and drive a flashy car.”
“The students should have chosen their words more wisely,” said Principal Jason Wayman.
Wayman said he believes the remarks were made by immature students attempting to be funny, but added it was premature to comment if disciplinary measures would be taken against the students for their insensitivity.
The newspapers were delivered to students, and no directives to confiscate remaining copies of the recent publication were given, Wayman said.
Montezuma-Cortez School Superintendent Alex Carter said Friday he had yet to see the publication. When asked if the student press or the students who made the remarks should be blamed, he declined to comment.
“It’s a M-CHS issue,” said Carter.
After hearing the racial comment, Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, said it falls within student free speech rights under Colorado law.
“Colorado is one of seven states that has heightened free speech protection for high schools,” Goldstein said. “State law limits what can be censored to things that are obscene, defamatory, cast somebody in a false light or presents a clear and present danger.”
While offensive, the racial comment falls within free speech under that legal standard, but he said the racial overtones have repercussions for the school and the community.
“I think it is an indication that the school has some work to do on tolerance,” Goldstein said. “In terms of overt racism, I’d say it is up there. But I would not feel better about it if they covered it up.”
School journalism adviser and teacher Deb McVicker said she and student editor, Abby Lock, have both been inappropriately harassed as a result of the fiasco.
“I never expected this reaction,” said McVicker.
McVicker said those who have complained are concerned that the coverage leaves a bad impression that high school students are sexist and racist. She agreed the comments were insensitive and offensive, and in hindsight she would have exercised greater caution in her role as an adviser.
McVicker, however, is prohibited by statute from censoring a student-owned and managed newspaper.
“I can’t make the determination to say what can or cannot be printed,” she said. “That would be illegal.”
The issue could be a learning opportunity, Goldstein said.
“There is now the ability for people to sit these students down and say ‘Hey, here is a problem,’ and that can be a positive thing,’” Goldstein said.
The editor could have censored the comment, or the student reporter could have chosen a different, less offensive opinion, but leaving it in was also very telling, he said.
“The fact that we are all talking about it means it is newsworthy. If it is newsworthy, why would the editor censor it?” Goldstein said. “If that is what is being discussed in the school, then there is an obligation to reveal what is being discussed so those attitudes can be confronted.”
The Colorado statute, called Rights for Free Expression for Public School Students, passed in 1990. Other states passes similar laws protecting student free speech after the 1988 Supreme Court “Hazelwood” decision that allows school officials to censor a newspaper “for any legitimate educational purpose.”
High school newspapers in states that have not passed laws strengthening student free-speech rights, are subject to censorship from school officials under the default federal law.
“My guess is that the editor and students are experiencing the consequences. Having printed this, they now get to hear all about it,” Goldstein said.
McVicker said she has already been in contact with an attorney from the SPLC, and was advised that the publication has done nothing wrong.
In regard to confiscated newspapers, McVicker said a stack of the recent publication was removed from outside her classroom.
“There was a stack of about 60 newspapers that vanished,” she said.