High school paper runs article about student in porn industry after free speech fight

The paper's adviser accused school district officials in California of censorship after they demanded to approve the article before publication.
Bear Creek High School student newspaper adviser Kathi Duffel, left, and student journalist Bailey Kirkeby talk about the Lodi Unified School District's attempts at suppressing a story that Kirkeby wrote about a current 18-year-old student who works in the porn industry, in Stockton, California on April 26, 2019.
Bear Creek High School student newspaper adviser Kathi Duffel, left, and student journalist Bailey Kirkeby talk about the Lodi Unified School District's attempts at suppressing a story that Kirkeby wrote about a current 18-year-old student who works in the porn industry, in Stockton, California on April 26, 2019.Clifford Oto / The Record via AP

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By Associated Press

STOCKTON, Calif. — A Central California high school newspaper has published an article about an 18-year-old student who works in the porn industry after a fight with the district that the paper's adviser said violated free speech.

The Lodi Unified School District didn't stop the story, "Risky business: starting a career in the adult entertainment industry," from running Friday in the Bear Creek High School paper, The Bruin Voice.

The article profiles a student, Caitlin Fink, who sells nude photos of herself, is a member of an erotic video website, has signed a contract with a porn agency, and aspires to be a stripper.

The paper's adviser, English teacher Kathi Duffel, had accused district officials of censorship after they demanded to review and approve the article before publication. In an April 11 letter, district Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer warned of possible discipline, "up to and including dismissal" if she refused.

Duffel refused on free speech grounds, and officials in the San Joaquin Valley district, which has about 31,500 students, agreed to let an attorney review the story. Matthew Cate, who represents Duffel and the student who wrote the article, concluded that the story didn't violate education codes.

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A lawyer for the district, Paul Gant, wrote to Cate on Wednesday to say the district wouldn't prevent publication of the story. But Gant also called Duffel insubordinate for refusing to submit the article for review, and said, "There is no question that the article could be lawfully reviewed or censored," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

"Because the district has been denied an opportunity to preview the article, the district does not endorse it," the district said in a statement. "Because we are charged with the education and care of our community's children, we will always be diligent in our efforts to provide a safe learning environment for all students, while complying with our obligations under the law."

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Duffel had told the paper that the article doesn't glamorize pornography, but it "will help students think more critically about the choices they do make at this age in their lives."

Fink said she wanted to dispel rumors about her chosen profession. "I'm 18, what I'm doing is legal, and I don't see why everyone is making such a big deal out of it," she said.

Bruin Voice news editor Bailey Kirkeby wrote the article. "I am very proud of the story and how it turned out," she told the Chronicle.

California law ensures that the First Amendment applies to student journalists. It prohibits prior restraint of school newspaper stories unless they are obscene, libelous, slanderous, or incite unlawful acts or school disruptions.

Duffel's students "are getting a front-row seat to our government in action," she told the Chronicle. "What better way to teach the value of the First Amendment than by teaching them firsthand not to have their voices silenced?"

This isn't the first time Duffel has dealt with censorship attempts during her nearly three decades advising The Bruin Voice. In 2013, the principal at the time confiscated 1,700 copies of the newspaper when students exposed inaccuracies in the school safety handbook.

When asked by the Columbia Journalism Review what she would have done this time around had she been fired, Duffel said: "I would take legal action against the district."

Elisha Fieldstadt contributed.