A faculty-facilitated open forum was hosted Grover Cleveland High School students to discuss the “fallout, residue and interesting implications” from the recent decision of the administration to pull distribution of the V-Day issue of the school newspaper, Le Sabre.
On Feb. 14, the school newspaper staff ran a diagram of a vagina from a biology book on the cover page and a headline that read, “Happy Vagina Day.” The administrators decided to confiscate the school newspaper, citing it as obscene and as having the possibility to disrupt the normal functioning of the school operations.
The orderly 25-minute forum allowed administrators and students to vocalize whether they were offended or felt that the confiscation of the newspaper was wrong. Some students said that the oppression and suppression of the topic of violence against women needs to end. There was standing room only with more than 300 students in attendance at the forum.
The forum began with Rita Hall, chairwoman of the English department, asking for students who were offended by the paper to speak.
After an approximate 15-second silent pause two female students got up and said that the diagram did not offend them themselves but they could see how it could bother others. They said they were shocked that the newspaper would do this.
A male newspaper staff member said, “It was not a shock factor that was intended.” He continued by saying women’s issues need to be talked about. “This is why things get suppressed because no one talks about it,” he said. This statement was met with applause from the crowd.
A female student asked, “There was nothing in there (the article) about vagina why did there have to be a diagram of the vagina?”
The question went unanswered.
Students had reported that some teachers made comparisons of female genitalia to historic negative acts and symbols. A male student said he did not see how a vagina could be compared to a swastika and lynching.
“How can those symbols be used to compare anatomy?” he asked. “How can someone see a lynching on the same level?”
His question also went unanswered.
The school psychologist, Breanna Demail, took the microphone and emphasized that Vagina Day stands for “Victory over violence against women.”
Another staff member talked about her displeasure with how the circulation of the newspaper was handled.
Diane Seiger, school administrative assistant, said that she was extremely upset at how the papers were delivered. She said she always sees the issue before it is released on campus but this issue did not arrive to her until the morning of distribution at 6:30 a.m. She said it was bundled differently than normal but she didn’t think anything of it and went ahead allowing the paper to be distributed without checking it.
After the diagram was brought to her attention she said she felt this was all done intentionally. The newspaper staff sensationalized the topic, she said, calling their tactics “yellow journalism.”
In response to Seiger’s claim that the newspaper was intentionally withheld until distribution, a female representative from the newspaper responded saying that they were late in getting the paper to the printer and that there was glitch that attributed to the delay so it was not intentional.
During the forum, Seiger said she had spoken to a writer from the Los Angeles Times who said “his editor would never have used this.”
A blog by Steve Lopez on the L.A. Times website disagrees with her. It quotes Principal Bob Marks asking Lopez, “Would a picture like this appear on the front page of the L.A. Times?”
Lopez said his editor’s stance is “hard to say, actually. We’re still getting to know our new owner, Sam Zell. But based on what we’ve heard so far, vaginas on the front page are not out of the question.”
The Daily Sundial ran an article about the incident by Le Sabre staff writer Rachael Reyes in its Feb. 18 issue with a photo of the high school paper’s front page on page three.
Rachel Reyes said no one should have to feel shame about their sexuality. “We should be talking about vaginas. All day. Every day,” she said.
Richard Edmond, editor-in-chief of Le Sabre, said the vagina-themed issue was aimed at raising awareness about violence against women.
Edmond, 15, said a member of the newspaper staff brought up the theme of “Happy Vagina Day” and Edmond said he liked it, so he ran with it.
“State law says that it has to be called obscene by the students. The administration pulled (the paper) before you read it. They did not give you a chance to decide for yourselves,” he said. His comments were also met with applause.
Edmond was referring to The California Student Free Expression Law, California Educational Code 48907, adopted Feb.?22, 1977. The Student Press Law Center interprets the law on their website as “a provision and provides student journalists attending California public high schools with added protection against administrative censorship.”
Administrators argue that they decided to stop the distribution of the school newspaper as it would have caused disruption of the orderly operation of the school, which the law does grant them the authority to do.
The law states, “Also prohibited shall be material which so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”
But Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the SPLC, commented in an article posted on the SPLC website about the controversy at Cleveland High website that the California’s Student Free Expression Law was designed to offer students more protection.
“In California, the education code requires administrators to demonstrate that what they want to censor is illegal or creates a clear and present danger of disruption,” Goldstein said. “I’m sure the paper was provocative, but provocative isn’t enough.”
One female student got up and said, “I did not learn about my vagina in health class. I learned more about my vagina and even the names of the parts from the diagram that was in the paper. The paper is there to inform and that is just what it did,” she said.
Hall said that every newspaper she went around and looked at had never run a diagram like that and when she asked around various newspaper representatives said they would never do that.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Sacramento Bee and Daily News were asked if they have ever or would ever run a diagram of a woman’s or a man’s genitalia.
Sacramento Bee’s Janet Vitt said, “We have run anatomically correct women’s reproductive system graphics and would run a man’s. Looks like we did in September of ’06 but I can’t tell by our archives if it was on the front page, front section or health section.”
Daily News’ managing editor Melissa Lalum, 37, said, “I have the ‘never say never’ policy because you never know when something might be relevant, with that said, I am very sensitive to what readers might perceive as offensive.”
One of the first student speakers who said she was not offended by the newspaper at the beginning of the forum contradicted her original view. She said, “I found it obscene and therefore it was rightfully confiscated.”
A male student said the newspaper staff are seniors and moving on. They are going to leave the fallout for juniors and sophomores to deal with, he said.
A female student gave a tearful speech how this has helped her come to terms with her own issues because this is now being talked about.
“Vagina Day was created to give women who have been defiled the courage to take their life back after rape or violence has occurred to them” Demail said. “Not just here in the United States, but around the world.”
Another student who represented a peer counseling group said her group is proposin
g a production of the “Vagina Monologues.”
“We are not going to solve anything today, therefore the dialogue is just beginning,” said a male student.
Hall closed by saying, “If this would not run in other newspapers, then that is the standard for me.”