Inspired by the increased visibility of openly gay teenagers on campus, students at a Kern County high school decided to explore the topic in the school newspaper, the Kernal.
But the night before the series was to go to print in April, the paper's editors said, East Bakersfield High School Principal John L. Gibson pulled the plug, citing concerns for the safety of gay students on campus.
"All of a sudden, everything comes to a screeching halt," said Travis Mattias, 17, the paper's features editor. "We talked about certain cases before and what to do when we have censorship issues. . . . We just never expected it would happen to us."
Similar scenarios appear to be playing out increasingly in schools across the country as gay issues emerge as a topic of choice for high school journalists, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington.
"The old standard was teen pregnancy," he said. "It was a topic of great interest to teenagers but one that school officials preferred not to see in print."
With backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, Mattias and two other editors -- Joel Paramo, 18, and Maria Krauter, 17 -- are suing Gibson, the superintendent, school trustees and the Kern High School District. The students hope a judge will compel officials to allow them to print the series this fall. Several classmates featured in the four articles are co-plaintiffs.
Two articles were typical newspaper features: one on gay students on campus, the other on the national organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
One story summarized the nature-vs.-nurture debate, and another focused on students and local pastors who say they oppose homosexuality because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
Administrators typically allow students to regulate content of the Kernal. The school's journalism adviser mentioned the four articles to an assistant principal before they went to print, Paramo said. The next day, student editors were summoned to a meeting with administrators.
The group ultimately reached a compromise: The series could run if the identities of gay and lesbian students on campus were shielded, Paramo said. The next evening, after a redacted version was laid out, students said, Gibson appeared at the school newspaper office to stop publication of the series.
Gibson said he had learned that a threat had been made against a transgender student featured in the series, according to the complaint filed on behalf of the students by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Officials from the Kern High School District, on behalf of Gibson and the school, declined to comment.
California's Education Code requires schools to provide students a safe learning environment free from harassment and discrimination.
In June, a San Diego Superior Court jury awarded two former Poway High School students $300,000 after finding school administrators had failed to protect them from students who harassed them because they were gay.
Also, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the right of public high school administrators to censor school-sponsored newspapers.
Still, the controversy comes as a surprise to some legal observers, who say the state is one of only six with laws granting student journalists the same free speech rights as professional journalists.
"California is probably the place where we would have least expected to have these problems," the student press center's Goodman said. "These situations are probably happening at schools all over the country. However, we only hear about a tiny percentage because many students feel they have no choice but to accept it."
The growing interest in gay issues by the student press is largely attributed to a shifting focus in pop culture and increased attention to such issues in the mainstream media, said Joshua Lamont, a spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
"There is more news happening in the topics relating to sexual orientation," Goodman said. "The gay marriage debate presents a clear news peg for students to say, 'These issues are part of our world.' "
Many students also are becoming comfortable with their sexual orientation at a much younger age than before, Lamont said. He said studies have shown that the average coming-out age has dropped from 21 to 16 in the past 10 to 15 years.
The number of campus clubs known as gay-straight alliances has increased, with almost 3,000 groups now registered with GLSEN nationwide. In the mid-1990s, Lamont said, there were fewer than 500.
"Without a question, it's fair to say that students are more comfortable with the topic than administrators," Goodman said.
He added that coverage of gay issues isn't always favorable.
"It's often perceived as a conservative versus liberal issue, but it's not just the students who are writing opinion pieces that may be perceived as pro-gay," Goodman said. "We've seen situations where students who've written pieces critical of gays and lesbians were censored. It's the topic that is ultimately the concern."
Although he disagrees with the administrators' stance at East Bakersfield High, Lamont said he supports their commitment to protecting students.
"To prevent violence -- if that is the true intention -- then I empathize with that," he said. "But I wonder if that's really the true intention."
Lamont said most teachers and administrators' "hearts are in the right place," although their concerns might be misguided. Administrators often assume that gay-themed articles will address sexual behavior, Lamont said. In reality, he said, they tend to focus on civil rights issues and marriage.
The controversy over the Kernal is the second widely reported case this year of a student newspaper coming under fire for trying to report on gay issues.
In February, Ann Long, 18, who wrote about openly gay classmates at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., was removed as co-editor of the student paper by school officials who said she failed to verify facts and paraphrased quotes in her story.
Initially, officials said she had violated the state Education Code by not obtaining permission from parents of three students she profiled in the Oracle.
Unlike the Troy High case, students featured in the East Bakersfield series and their parents had signed permission slips. At a time when newspapers are facing growing criticism for using anonymous sources, students said they were angry that school administrators would compel them to shield the identities of openly gay classmates.
"They tried to hide the dirty little secret of East Bakersfield High School, which really wasn't a secret at all," said Janet Rangel, 18, who with her mother was interviewed for the series.
Rangel, who has since graduated and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said administrators were trying to push her back into the closet. "They are sending the message that our student body isn't mature enough to handle this," she said.