Montana Alternative School “Free the Nipple” Article Sparks District-Wide Controversy

The publication of controversial topless images and profanity in a Missoula County, Montana, high school paper has led to the recall of a school newspaper, a three-day suspension of Principal Jane Bennett, and incited serious discussion about what constitutes “obscene” and to what extent school officials should regulate student’s right to free speech in school publications.

In a January issue of Willard Alternative High School’s newspaper, The Wire, student journalists addressed a very topical global issue that has impacted individual people, public institutions, and even national treasures: the display of the female nipple in public. Entitled “Free the Nipple,” the article explored society’s perceptions and negative assumptions surrounding the exposed female nipple, and the issue contained an opinion piece titled “Misconceptions SLAMMED,” which listed derogatory comments regarding public breastfeeding collected from parenting blogs.

It wasn’t just the hot topic that landed the issue in hot water, though. Printed pictures of topless women and the usage of the words “dick,” “tit,” and “fucked,” are ultimately what caused the district to issue a formal recall of the paper within 30 minutes of its distribution. Citing a violation of Board Policy 3221, the Missoula County School District and Board started an almost three-month investigation into whether the newspaper had crossed the “obscenity” line and to find out who was responsible for letting the articles go to press in the first place.

Policy 3221, which addresses the publication and distribution of school-sponsored productions states, “materials may not be libelous, obscene, or profane nor may they cause a substantial disruption of the school.” According to district officials, the issue of The Wire was in violation for containing nude photos and “lewd and vulgar” language. “The editorial ‘Free the Nipple’ is well-reasoned and provides an avenue for reasonable discourse on a controversial topic,” noted the statement given by the district. “It is the use of partially nude women perceived to be students that violates board policy.”

According to student teacher, Jacquelyn Davis, though, “The language that the district tried to censor was meant to emphasize and challenge discrimination against women.” Moreover, faculty advisor Lisa Waller and co-editor of The Wire, Keaton Alexander, point out that all of the models were consenting adults over 18 and were not students of the high school.

Despite the attempts by Davis, Waller, Alexander, and Principal Jane Bennett, though, the district ultimately determined a precedent had been set from the 1988 Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave school’s the right to censor school publications as long as they were able to provide a “reasonable educational justification” and the censorship comes from a neutral viewpoint. “One of the most important points of Hazelwood is making certain [the publication] is suitable for the audience it is intended for,” Superintendent Mark Thane said. “The Wire is a school-sponsored publication directly tied to the curriculum.” For Thane, the nude photos were disruptive and as such could be censored under board policy.

This ruling didn’t stop Principal Bennett from continuing to fight what seemed to be an arbitrary interpretation of a vague board policy and Supreme Court case from 1988. Along with recalling the newspaper, the school also suspended Bennett for three days without pay on the grounds that as the person who reviews the final version of the paper, she should have halted the publication of the article. Bennett appealed her suspension in February arguing about the extent to which she is responsible for censoring student journalism. According to her lawyer Paul Leisher, “This district has always felt that the principal needs to take a hands-off approach to the extent possible. Not least because of the legal liability that can occur from censorship.”

Despite the appeal, with a 8-1 vote, the school board determined that the suspension was a justified form of discipline because of the role Bennett played in approving the newspaper for publication. “To be very clear, Ms. Bennett indicated she reviewed this article, this language and said ‘this was okay,’” Elizabeth Kaleva, legal counsel for the board, said. “And that’s what we’re saying is absolutely not okay, and that’s the basis for this discipline.”

In the end, it was determined that the nude images were okay because they fell in-line with Policy 3221’s requirement that “controversial issues may be presented provided they are treated in depth and represent a variety of viewpoints.” It was, however, the language which could not be overlooked. Opponents argued that the course language detracted from the effectiveness of the articles argument. “I think the photos are great actually, they illustrate the point very well,” said board member, Korbin Bragstad. “It’s just unfortunate that the language that was used had to be used.”

Although Bennett’s appeal wasn’t successful, Bennett, students, and the school district agree that the three-month controversy surrounding “Free the Nipple” has opened the door for meaningful conversations surrounding the issue of free speech in school publications. “I will never regret standing up for our journalists and their free speech rights,” said Bennett, adding:

I will continue to not censor the paper and will maintain my trust in our students to pick topics that are serious issues worth writing about. We are an alternative high school so, of course, we can be expected to be audacious.

“The reaction to our finished product proved to be a larger forum to discuss the issue, and therefore had value,” Alexander said. “But the censorship resulted in our work towards a stimulating product largely arbitrary.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!