Students at Tokay High distributed the school newspaper on Friday, ending a week-long impasse over potentially libelous comments in an article.
After Principal Erik Sandstrom stepped in and blocked the Tokay Press from being handed out on campus, the students decided to insert a new page with a revised article in each of the 1,200 copies of the paper rather than let their publication sit in Sandstrom's office any longer.
Both Sandstrom and journalism adviser Roger Woo viewed the delay as a learning experience for everyone involved.
"We now have a grand opportunity, in a sense, to have the students get something out of this on the legal issue," Sandstrom said. "It's a teachable moment."
Under the board policy that governs student publications, it was up to the newspaper staff to make the final decision: They could either stick to their guns and go through a series of meetings to determine whether the information was libelous - and further delay the newspaper's distribution - or modify the article in question.
"They really saw it as a win-win," Sandstrom said in removing the specific comments, re-printing the page that contained the article and distributing the newspaper Friday.
Sandstrom decided last Friday to hold the papers because of legal concerns over a story alleging copyright violations. It wasn't the topic that was a concern, but rather allegations in the story that John Johnston, the athletic director, improperly obtained and used a logo that belongs to the University of Missouri. "When I took over the journalism class, I learned that libel was doing something with malice. I didn't see the malice in this," Woo said. "But am I willing to risk putting the district in litigation when they have to chop $15 million from the budget? No."
Johnston was unavailable for comment Friday.
Co-editor Katie Woznick, who wrote the story, was just happy to get the newspaper out.
"I feel that even though I would have liked to publish the article the way it was, I felt like changing it was a good decision," she said following the schoolwide distribution.
Although she stands by the quote in question, she said she was unsure if it could be defended in court.
"I learned to be more careful," Woznick said. "We could have still distributed the paper (before changing it), but it was easier to compromise."
On Tuesday, media attorney Charity Kenyon and Jim Ewert, of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, will speak to the journalism class about libel and slander.
Despite having to change what she originally reported, Woznick said she still wants to go into newspaper journalism.
"This didn't discourage me at all. You learn from this and it makes you a better reporter," she said.
Sandstrom does not typically read any articles before they are printed, instead entrusting that role to Woo. However, he did look over the publication the morning of Nov. 7 before distribution because he had heard about the controversial story.
Board policy states that if material brings "any person into public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or causes him to be shunned or avoided, or injure him/her in his/her business or profession," it is likely to be libelous.
So before allowing the newspaper to be distributed, he contacted his supervisor, Associate Superintendent Barbara Johnston, who in turn discussed the issue with other district staff and contacted legal advisers, according to Sandstrom.
Johnston recommended not publishing the article as it was written because it was too much of a gray area whether the section could be considered libelous.
At that time, Sandstrom met with Woo and the entire publication staff to lay out the options in addressing the article without possibly defaming someone, the principal said.
Students decided to rewrite several sentences and have the entire page reprinted overnight Thursday.
"We weren't trying to sell them anything," Sandstrom said, adding that the teens were very professional. "We were not trying to keep the information from getting out."
Woo agreed. "The choice was up to those guys. None of the options (we gave students) were to censor it," he said. "In talking to the kids, they wanted to get the paper out."
The copyright violations came to light this past summer after organizers of a youth football program not associated with Tokay became angry with the school for not establishing a "feeder program" into Tokay's football team and contacted the Collegiate Licensing Company about the copyright issues, according to Sandstrom.
The CLC was created in 1981 to contact NCAA schools about trademark violations. After contacting the school three months ago, staff agreed to phase out any logos in question.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.