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Weighing Free Speech Against Hurt Feelings

BERNALILLO β€” As I spent time on the campus of Bernalillo High School last week getting to the bottom of a censorship controversy involving a student-drawn cartoon, I tried to imagine how the dispute might have gone down in the harsh light of the off-campus world.

I could see protests and name-calling and maybe a rock thrown through the newspaper office window. Lawyers would suit up on both sides. And eventually somebody would have been called a terrorist, because that’s how we roll these days when we have a difference of opinion.

But that’s not how the BHS Spartans roll.

In two hours of interviews with all of the parties involved in this campuswide quarrel over a cartoon, I never heard anyone speak with anything but respect for and understanding of the parties with whom they disagree.

This is what Principal Keith Cowan had to say about the staff of Notes from the Basement, the year-old student-run newspaper: “They do a wonderful job with it. I have to commend the students for going about this professionally.”

And this is newspaper adviser Nina Quintana on censor Cowan: “He’s actually got a really good sense of humor.”

Cowan on cartoonist Alejandro Teran: “I think he did a nice job of creating a nice cartoon. He’s a neat kid. I don’t think that he was being malicious at all. ”

Teran on his feelings about how to settle the dispute: “We’re going to battle it out like civilized people.”

What has become a schoolwide debate on freedom of expression started when Teran, a junior who loves to draw, was thinking about a cartoon topic for the November issue of Notes from the Basement.

The varsity football team was having a terrible year and, as Teran puts it, “I thought I could take a bad thing and make it funny.”

He drew two students watching a football game. The scoreboard reads “Spartans 183 and Visitors 332” β€” roughly the cumulative point spread for the season. One student says to the other, “So, when does basketball season start?”

As political cartoons go, it’s a mild one, and Teran says he meant no harm.

The school district doesn’t have a student publications policy, only an agreement between Quintana and Cowan that she give him a heads up for anything that might be controversial.

And Cowan, with input from the athletic director and boys basketball coach, Terry Darnell, vetoed the cartoon. Both men thought the cartoon could hurt the feelings of football players and pit the basketball team against the football team and athletes against the newspaper staff. Students poking fun at students wasn’t a road the administration wanted to start down.

“I’m not in the position to tell people what’s funny and what’s not,” Cowan said. “I’m sure people are going to get a laugh out of it and see some humor in it. The question is whether the laughs it’s going to get are going to be worth the repercussions. As a school, we don’t want to promote a climate that we are speaking negatively against our peers. I can’t support that kind of negativity in our school.”

Teran told me he never thought the cartoon would get the reaction it did.

“I knew some people would get mad, and I was prepared for that,” he said, “but I didn’t expect it to get shot down. I was disappointed. I was bummed.”

When the newspaper class heard the news, “Of course there was some heated reaction,” Quintana said. One idea was to distribute the cartoon as a flier β€” as a way to get around the order not to print it in the monthly newspaper. Or to post the cartoon on Facebook.

But, Quintana said, “I wanted my students to learn a productive way of handling it.”

They decided against the civil disobedience route and instead proposed that the administration engage with them in a debate on the issue of the role and limitations of student publications. Cowan agreed, and so for the past few weeks, two teams of students have been researching the First Amendment and the legal history of the student press.

Cowan’s reading of the law is that a student newspaper operates with certain limitations due to its funding source and status as part of a government institution.

“It’s definitely an avenue for students to express their views and their thoughts,” Cowan said. “It’s not an avenue to take shots at other people or to hurt other people.

Quintana says students’ First Amendment rights don’t end when they walk on campus and that the role of a student newspaper isn’t only to print positive news (which News from the Basement does a lot of) but also to challenge. “If we did β€˜Rah, rah, everything’s great’ then you have a newsletter,” she said. “We want to generate conversation.”

Teran’s cartoon definitely did that, but Cowan cautioned me that the debate isn’t a referendum on whether the cartoon is funny or appropriate and won’t determine whether it is published. “The debate definitely won’t sway me,” he told me. “It’s not running. The cartoon is the catalyst for a debate on freedom of the press.”

I’ll be one of three judges of the debate tomorrow night. It’s at 5:30 p.m. in the high school’s media arts building, if you’d like to come by to hear a good, respectful discussion of freedom of speech. I’ll let you know in Thursday’s column how it turned out.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal