A High School Paper Profiled A Student Sex Worker & Sparked A Free Speech Battle

A high school English teacher and newspaper adviser is teaching her students about the importance of free speech with a prime, real-life example. Kathi Duffel, who advises The Bruin Voice student paper at Bear Creek High in Stockton, CA, made headlines recently after standing up to the school district’s attempt to quash a profile about a student sex worker.

“I have to trust the First Amendment and the law to protect me,” Duffel told the Columbia Journalism Review. “I have to trust that my expertise and my professionalism and my judgment in reviewing this story, and the judgment of our attorneys, will be enough to appease the district. I have had to shell out money to hire my own attorneys in the past, but I will never allow prior review of The Bruin Voice, which is basically overreach by the district.”

The story in question involves 18-year-old Caitlin Fink, a high school senior who sells nude photos, is signed on with a porn agency, and aspires to be a stripper, and the circumstances that led to those life decisions. Duffel approved the pitch earlier this year, with her news editor, Bailey Kirkeby, at the helm and Fink very much on board to tell her side of the story.

“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,” Fink told the Associated Press of her decision to speak out.

On April 11, however, district superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer issued a letter — a cease and desist of sorts — to Duffel, demanding district officials be allowed to review and approve the article before publication. Failure to comply, the letter warned, could result in discipline “up to and including dismissal.” The district’s main concerns, Nichols-Washer stated, were that the story might contain obscene material, fail to verify that Fink was of legal age when she began working in the industry, and insinuate that Fink’s parents might be defamed. If any of those claims were true, the school board would be in the right with their request. But, Duffel contends, they were all false.

In response, Duffel contacted the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. and was connected with lawyer Matthew Cate, who offered to take on the case pro bono. After reviewing the story several times, he determined that it was “neither defamatory nor obscene.”

“Ms. Duffel approved it for publication,” he wrote in an 11-page analysis of the story’s legality. “That ought to have been the end of the matter.”

Duffel’s reverence for the First Amendment is something she wants to instill in her students, she said. “Every time you try to censor the press, the district always has to learn the hard way,” she told the CJR. “When you try to silence our voice, all it does is make our voice louder.”

Nichols-Washer requested a disclaimer be added to the story, which published Friday, May 3, noting the district’s disapproval, as well as a right to censor future articles. Duffel and her staff declined to run the disclaimer.

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