Teachers & Students Fighting Censorship in Sonoma County High Schools
1991 Jack Green Civil Liberties Award Honorees
The 1991 Jack Green Civil Liberties Award was presented to nine individuals and to the staff of an underground student newspaper to honor those who fought censorship in Sonoma County high schools.
Michael Houghton: In September, 1989, Michael, a senior, was asked by Analy High School to paint a mural there. Michael decided that the mural was to depict “the horror of war, agony of a soldier” (it included a soldier in the background hunched over, with hands covering eyes as if crying). The school board approved the design. Several veterans groups thought it degrading and went to the school board to demand it not be allowed. Michael spoke with these groups and the press to explain he did not intend to show “shame” but “agony”, and rallied community support. During this time, his family home was hit with a pellet gun, eggs and a window broken. The mural took over six months to complete, and just as it was finished it was vandalized. It took days to clean-up with lots of help from others to restore. The mural now hangs at Analy High. Michael graduated from Analy and now attends the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland pursuing his art education.
Eric Hamilton: In his senior year at Cloverdale High School (1989-90), he was Student Body President and worked on the staffs of the student newspaper Crier and the yearbook. After many problems with the teacher in charge of Crier and the yearbook over editing things out, he decided to start his own newspaper where students could criticize the administration. Named the anti-Crier, he produced it his own, and promised not to edit any of the articles submitted. After passing it out before school to those who had paid for it in advance, he was “suspended indefinitely” by the principal and dean of Cloverdale High, and was given 2 options; He could go to the “reform school” in Cloverdale or find a school somewhere else in the county. He transferred to Geyserville High and finished his senior year there. Eric now attends SRJC and works on the student newspaper The Oakleaf.
Jim Pitt, Barbara Gosselin, Dale Steffy, Lanny Lowery, Nancy Casazza, Anita Kahl, and Joann Sonenstein – English Teachers at Rancho Cotati High School: Barbara Gosselin’s senior English class had The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood on the reading list. The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about a future world where women were oppressed and religion was used to keep the people in line. The reading list had prior approval of the school board. Some parents and a religious leader demanded that the school board remove the book from the list. The teachers receiving the award led the fight to keep the book on the list. The board agreed to keep the book for this year. But it is still under review.
The Staff of Ipso Facto: On November 27, 1990, students at Sonoma Valley High School created Ipso Facto, a one page newsletter containing articles critical of Sonoma Valley High’s dress code, a plea to have the school administration offer condoms to its students, a critique of the U.S. involvement in the Iraq/Kuwait conflict, and on the polluting effects of cars. The writers, of Ipso Facto did not identify themselves in the newspaper, fearing possible retaliation due to the controversial subjects contained therein. They were right. After copies of Ipso Facto were found on campus, Principal Ralph Hahn announced that Ipso Facto was banned and threatened students with punishment for circulating the newspaper. He based his action on a 1977 policy of the school district banning the distribution of anonymous printed matter on campus.
One of the students contacted the Sonoma Chapter of the ACLU, and we wrote a letter on the student’s behalf to Principal Hahn and the Board of Trustees, demanding that the censorship of Ipso Facto end, stating it was in violation of the free speech/free press rights contained in the U.S. and California Constitutions as well as the California Education Code. The School Board immediately withdrew the ban and then rewrote their policies to assure that students are guaranteed their free speech rights.