When the school principal found out about the forthcoming profile, and asked to see a copy, Duffel refused. A letter dated April 11 from Cathy Nichols-Washer, the district’s superintendent, told the journalism instructor about the district’s concern that the article, in focusing on “production of adult videos”, would violate a state education code barring the publication of material that is “obscene, libellous, or slanderous”. State law further prohibits content that incites unlawful acts or school disruptions and that is “inconsistent with the professional standards of English and journalism”, the superintendent argued.
Duffel, for her part, maintains that the article fails none of these tests, as it delves into the background of the student and examines some of the challenges she has faced in making a living in adult entertainment - setting up a PayPal account, signing a contract with the website Pornhub, preparing for an audition at a strip club in San Francisco. She called the assertion that the story focuses on the production of porn videos a “gross mischaracterisation”.
“You are hereby directed to refrain from publishing the article prior to the District’s review and approval,” the letter stated. If she failed to do so, it continued, she “may be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal”.
The letter further warned her that she could be held personally liable in any claims arising from publication.
“Moreover, should you be named as a party to litigation arising from the article’s publication, your failure to comply with the above directive may forfeit your right to indemnification in such litigation,” the district concluded. “In such case, you would likely be personally liable for any costs and resulting damages.”
Alarmed, Duffel contacted a lawyer who used to head the Student Press Law Centre and with whom she has consulted in the past, writing, “I have never buckled and provided the administration with a copy of a story in advance.”
Responding to the superintendent the next day, Duffel provided a “unanimous response” from the editors of the Bruin Voice.
“Read the law,” the students told their superintendent. “Read it carefully.”
They argued that the story was on firm footing, while claiming that it was the school district that had erred when an employee contacted the subject’s father about the story. The response concluded that “if anyone faces liability in this case, it is you.”
Duffel became further unnerved when a school resource officer appeared in her classroom last week, asking her about “sex trafficking” and the age of those who had accessed the porn site. “I felt very threatened and intimidated,” she wrote to the media lawyer, Frank LoMonte, who was assisting her pro bono.
Duffel suggested to district officials that an independent lawyer with the Student Press Law Center review the story - a proposal the superintendent accepted in an April 18 letter, though she continued to press the faculty adviser to submit the article to the principal for review. Further, Nichols-Washer asked for a verdict from the independent attorney by 4.30pm the following day, imposing a deadline that Duffel said was unreasonable.
Fearing that the backlash was driven by members of the school board who had formed a false impression of the story, Duffel addressed them in a letter on April 18. If the concerns were merely legal, she said, an independent review would resolve them. Meanwhile, she again raised the prospect that the 18-year-old student’s privacy rights were violated when a school official contacted her father about the profile.
School officials didn’t immediately return a request for comment. In a statement to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, the school district maintained that it was not censoring the student journalists but nevertheless pledged to “intervene to ensure that any school related activity complies with the law”.
The student editors believe the district is trying to intimidate them. Separately, the author of the profile has received several mysterious threats from people she didn’t know on Facebook, said another staff member, Alisa Aistrup, 17.
Still, she said the editors know they are in good hands.
“It’s not Ms Duffel’s first rodeo,” Aistrup said in an interview. “And we aren’t going down without a fight.”