SCHOOL FLUNKS THIS ONE
Lots of people know that Matt Martinez, a senior at Mountain View High School in Mesa, is editor of the school newspaper, The Viewpoint. Not nearly as many are aware that he's also a devout Catholic, because Martinez believes that religion is a private matter.
That belief prompted him to voice his opinion in an editorial this month for The Viewpoint. In the editorial, Martinez criticized Christians in Action, a student organization that holds on-campus prayer meetings before school and during lunch at Mountain View. ". . . I see something very wrong when I walk through campus in the morning and see a group of students circling the flagpole praying to Christ," Martinez writes. ". . . At first, I assumed these people, Christians in Action, were only a public-service group. The organization's name led me to this false conclusion. The group gathers to pray and sing on campus, and it is perfectly legal. The president of the group, Candice Matlock, said, 'Anyone can join.' I still remain perplexed by this statement. How can just anyone join an organization that sings hymns and prays to Jesus Christ when not everyone believes in Him? . . ."
The editorial appears in the November 19 edition of The Viewpoint, at the top of the opinion page--above an editorial that decries the problems of tardiness and another that pays tribute to the cranberry, a Thanksgiving favorite.
But five words are missing from "Campus prayer indicative of weak faith." The words are the latest victims in the struggle for free speech on high school campuses. According to Martinez and Mountain View publications adviser Kris Carbajal, principal Craig Luketich censored specific references to the year-old Christians in Action and president Candice Matlock. Martinez says he was told that such specifics would bring divisiveness to Mountain View's campus. But, he insists, "CIA is divisive." He and others view the censorship as an affront. Luketich did not return calls from New Times.
Each month, newspaper staffers submit articles they believe might be controversial to Mountain View's publications board. Membership includes four teachers, four students, an administrator, the editors of the yearbook and newspaper and the managing editor of the newspaper.
"We don't give them the right to censor us, but we take suggestions," Martinez says, adding that in the past, the board has offered useful advice about ways to expand upon--rather than limit--coverage of such sensitive topics as AIDS. The latest batch of stories was met without comment. Ironically, Christians in Action president Candice Matlock is also editor in chief of the school yearbook, and therefore a member of the publications board. Even she supported Martinez's right to print the editorial as originally written, though, she says, "I wholeheartedly disagree" with its contents.
(Matlock refused to discuss the activities of Christians in Action, referring requests to Kim Van Osdell, the group's adviser. Van Osdell did not return calls from New Times.)
Here the tale of not-so-free speech takes another ironic twist. According to Carbajal and Martinez, it was not the Christians in Action editorial, but rather a news story--also written by Martinez--about the student council that upset assistant principal Teri Farney. (Farney, new this year to Mountain View, is the administrative representative on the publications board.) In the original version of the student-council story, Martinez quoted unspecified members of the student council as having referred to Farney, the group's adviser, as a "dictator." Farney reportedly brought this to the attention of Luketich--who is also new to the school--by showing him the offending article and, coincidentally, the rest of the stories that had been submitted that month. According to Carbajal and Martinez, Luketich read the Christians in Action piece and immediately summoned Carbajal. Martinez says he is more upset with Farney than with Luketich. "Her actions undermined the publications board," he says. Farney did not return calls from New Times.
The conversation between Carbajal and Luketich led to subsequent meetings between the principal and Martinez. Martinez says Luketich told him he could only print the editorial if he would remove the specific references to Christians in Action and Candice Matlock. Martinez says he was also told to remove the quote in which Farney was referred to as a "dictator."
"I didn't know if we were being censored or not. I asked, 'Is this a request or an ultimatum?' He said, 'Both,'" Martinez recalls. Carbajal and Martinez say this is the first time in its 17-year history that The Viewpoint--whose motto is "Students for a Free Press"--has been censored. Then again, the young editor admits, "No one tried to stir the pot before me."
His goal, he maintains, is "not only to give my opinion, but to get student thought. . . . They never think. They never pick the newspaper up, open it up and think about it."
And, Martinez adds, "This isn't just to piss people off. . . . I really do have a problem with people inflicting their religion on others."
Carbajal, who has served as adviser to the newspaper and yearbook for three years, says the ordeal has not been easy. She sees Luketich's point. But she is proud of Martinez--especially because he stands by his words. "We've had a lot of kids who prefer to punch and run. Matt's not like that," she says. Martinez says he considered printing a large, white space in place of the editorial, with only the words, "This article censored by administration," but instead he accepted the censorship of five words for the right to print his genericized opinion. (The omission of "dictator" makes six.) "It wasn't giving up, but it was losing half the battle," Martinez says. Without carte blanche to tackle controversial topics, the paper is just a "fluff piece of happy news," says Dave Sonius, a government teacher in his second year as a member of the publications board. "I don't think that makes the newspaper a very good laboratory," which is what he believes a student newspaper should be. He sides with Martinez.
"If people have a right to be on campus, they have a right to be criticized," says Louis Rhodes, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
While legislation has been introduced in recent years to guarantee free speech to Arizona students, it hasn't gone anywhere. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of administrators to censor high school newspapers, and of the dispute in Mesa, Rhodes says, "At best, a close call, I'm sad to tell you." Martinez contends the censorship of specific references to CIA and Matlock "decentralizes the whole story." Martinez criticizes Luketich for trying to protect Mountain View's image and hide the school's problems. None of this, he says, swayed the principal. "He said, 'Well, when you get into the real journalism field, you can do this stuff.'"
That, Martinez says, is exactly what he plans to do.