An intrepid high school journalist has written an as-yet unpublished article about a fellow student who works in porn. Though the porn-performing student in question is a legal adult, the profile has garnered unexpected attention from school officials. Now, the teacher overseeing the school newspaper is being threatened with firing and a police officer has shown up at school with questions about sex trafficking. When it comes to teenagers and porn, people seem to lose their minds—and any memory of the First Amendment.
In response to circulating rumors, Bailey Kirkeby, a junior at Bear Creek High in Stockton, Calif., decided to interview 18-year-old Caitlin Fink about her work in the adult industry. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Fink herself wanted to “get the facts out” about her entry into sex work. Kathi Duffel, an English teacher and longtime award-winning advisor to the student newspaper, approved of the story. It was set to publish in the May 3 edition of the Bruin Voice.
But then Lodi Unified School District administrators got word. According to the Chronicle, Duffel was handed a letter from Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer that read, “You are hereby directed to refrain from publishing the article prior to the District’s review and approval. Should you fail to provide a copy of the article as directed, you may be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.”
The letter specifically cited the interview with Fink about her “production of adult videos” as the point of concern and implied that the article “may contain material prohibited” by law, according to the Chronicle.
Duffel denied the request and told Nichols-Washer that she had “grossly mischaracterized the focus” of the article. Then she reached out to the Student Press Law Center, an organization that has fought for decades against censorship of student journalists, which put her in touch with lawyer Matthew Cate. The district agreed to have Cate independently review the article to determine its legality, but he has reportedly since decided to represent Kirkeby and Duffel.
Just recently, Fink arrived at school to find a police officer standing outside her classroom, who then asked her “questions implying Duffel was involved in sex trafficking,” reports the Chronicle. Duffel says the officer also requested to see a copy of the story. Fink, who sells videos via Snapchat and Pornhub, seems baffled by the magnitude of the controversy. “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,” she told the Chronicle.
The school district’s response clearly raises questions about student journalists’ First Amendment rights. As the Chronicle reports, California law suggests “with certain exceptions—content that is obscene, libelous, slanderous or incites students to commit crimes at school or break campus rules—the state law ensures that the First Amendment applies to youths.” But Cate, the lawyer now representing Kirkeby and Duffel, said of the student journalist, “She’s responsibly putting together a story about a young adult making her own decisions.”
The tagline of the student paper is, “The Voice shall not be silenced.”