Willard Wire

Controversy surrounding the Willard Wire's "Free the Nipple" January edition led to the issue being pulled, public outcry both for and against the issue, debate over student freedom of speech and censorship, and eventually, the retirement of the school's principal.

The issue of the student newspaper at Willard Alternative High School Program explored the Free the Nipple movement, which calls for gender equality and an end to the sexualization of female breasts. The issue included articles, editorials, a Q&A with a breastfeeding mother, and photos of topless men and women (nipples censored on the cover, but uncensored inside the paper).

The school district originally cited Policy 3221 — Publications and Distribution or Posting of Materials — in recalling the issue, saying that the paper violated the policy by including photographs of "partially nude women perceived to be students" and by using "lewd and vulgar language."

In February, principal Jane Bennett was suspended for three days without pay. Her appeal of that discipline was upheld by the school board at a March meeting that packed the board room with her supporters. The discussion, however, focused more on the language than the photos. In the end, Bennett's suspension was upheld 8-1. Trustee Michael Beers was the sole dissenting vote.

A month later, Bennett announced that she would retire from the school district at the end of the school year — something she wasn't considering before the controversy surrounding the student newspaper.

She always stood behind her student journalists.

"Their work on this issue of the paper was so sincere," she told the Missoulian in April. "To have their work thrown in the dumpster, literally thrown into dumpsters … to me that’s just wrong.”

The issue being pulled essentially proved the students' point, they said, calling it a knee-jerk reaction to bare female breasts.

Bennett's original letter of reprimand said Bennett was at fault because she didn't verify that the photo releases were accurate or have them reviewed by the district. But it was the vulgar language that dominated the discussion at Bennett's appeal hearing, with trustee Korbin Bragstad saying that if the vulgar language hadn't been used and they were only dealing with topless photos, "I would be on a completely different side of this." 

It launched a debate about the language, some of which described oral sex. Did it qualify as obscenity? Was recalling the issue a form of censorship or a violation of students' First Amendment rights? The community, and outsiders, weighed in on the issue, including other newspapers, the Montana Kaimin, the Student Press Law Center and the University of Montana School of Journalism.

A student in Maryland even contacted Bennett, saying her class was putting on a mock trial version of the appeal hearing.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said he'd never heard of a principal being "disciplined for inadequately censoring her students." 

Trustee Diane Lorenzen said the language distracted from the point the students were trying to make.

"It took away the power from the people who wrote the article, and gave it to the people that wrote the profanity," she said. "There was an opportunity there for the teacher to teach the kids that you can say the same thing using different words. That was a teachable moment that was lost."

But after Bennett announced her departure, the district fell silent on the issue.

There have been no policy changes since, and no discussion at school board meetings about student newspapers, the principal's role or policies and procedures.

Willard principal Kevin Ritchlin couldn't be reached for comment last week. Willard Wire adviser Lisa Waller was out of state and unavailable for comment.

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Reporter for the Missoulian