Redding high school tackles the First Amendment

Shasta paper’s flag-burning photo ignites a firestorm

ON THE COVER<br>This issue of the Volcano—specifically the image at top right—and the actions of Shasta High’s principal and superintendent after publication have attracted national attention.

This issue of the Volcano—specifically the image at top right—and the actions of Shasta High’s principal and superintendent after publication have attracted national attention.

When Shasta High School, in Redding, put out its last issue of the semester earlier this month, many of the students involved assumed they’d be back at their writing desks in the fall. In fact, one student—Amanda Cope, set to be the next editor in chief—had gone to great lengths to make it happen.

Then, with the semester’s last issue of the Volcano, their plans appeared to go down the drain. Right there on the front page, in a collage of photos of friends and the prom, was a picture of a student burning an American flag.

In his last editorial for the paper, Connor Kennedy, editor in chief at the time, defended the right to burn the flag as freedom of speech, a topic he had recently studied in one of his classes.

Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard thought the paper had gone too far. Soon after publication, he told the Redding Record Searchlight that the Volcano was simply and finally “done.” He went on to clarify that “there is not going to be a school newspaper next year” and added that the school was already planning to cut the Volcano because of budget constraints, but that the flag-burning picture “cements that decision.”

The disbanding of the newspaper has attracted national media attention, and phone calls to Amanda and Woollard were not returned.

Before the photo appeared in the paper, the administration had promised Amanda that the paper could continue next year if she could get enough students interested in the class. If not, it would be cut due to budget constraints.

Amanda took the challenge and managed to convince enough students to be a part of the Volcano. Some of them even “dropped AP courses, rearranged their planned schedules, and spent literally hundreds of dollars” on college summer classes, Amanda wrote in a letter to the Record Searchlight.

Judy Champagne, Volcano faculty adviser, was just as angry about the picture, asserting that it was “bad journalism” and telling the Redding paper that the students “misused” their freedom of speech and treated the issue like “a game.”

The disapproval of the cover art went right to the top of the chain of command, with Superintendent Mike Stuart saying he thought the piece highlighted the students’ immaturity. “Personally I find it offensive,” Stuart told reporters.

These strong words from the principal, advising faculty and superintendent condemned the paper automatically, but students had yet to be heard.

Kennedy, who has since graduated from Shasta High, has had little to say since the paper was published. He has not returned phone calls, but wrote an editorial response to the Record Searchlight in which he highlights the fact that his classmates had recently finished a unit about free speech in which they delved into the topic of flag burning. He argued that, due to the recent material taught in class, his editorial and the picture in the Volcano were “relevant and timely.”

Amanda has been far more vocal. When the newspaper class was cancelled, she went to Superintendent Stuart, the same man who had condemned the paper’s decision to run the photo. She convinced Stuart that she deserved the chance that she was promised, and he overrode Woollard’s decision, calling for the reinstatement of the paper on a probationary basis.

Stuart says he will re-evaluate the Volcano, and student interest in journalism, at the end of the 2008-09 school year. After the newspaper was reinstated, Woollard told reporters that it would cost the school $13,000.

Amanda isn’t wasting any time on her victory lap; instead of celebrating, she’s planning. She has told reporters that she wants to expand the Volcano’s coverage to encompass student interests, from test dates to international news.