Q&A: Teacher facing possible firing over student sex worker profile

Photo of Kathi Duffel by Lilly Lim.

On April 11, Kathi Duffel, an English teacher at Bear Creek High School in Stockton, California, received a letter from the Lodi Unified School District about her work with The Bruin Voice. The letter requested pre-publication review of a Voice story about an 18-year-old Bear Creek student who is a sex worker, citing concerns that it might violate a state education code governing “obscene, libelous, or slanderous” material. Should Duffel not comply, the letter indicated she may face the loss of her job.

Duffel, who has advised The Bruin Voice since it started in 1991, has dealt with administrative pressures and prior review requests before. Each time, she tells CJR, “the district had to learn it the hard way.” Duffel and her student journalists plan to publish their profile of the student, Caitlin Fink, on May 3. (Fink, who reportedly authorized the use of her name for the Bruin Voice profile and has since commented on the episode, told the Associated Press, “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.”)

ICYMI: A student journalist asked her school for records of harassment complaints against teachers. She ended up uncovering a big story 

CJR spoke with Duffel about her history with the Bruin Voice, how her students’ controversial story came together, and why she wouldn’t think of leaving the school for a newsroom. “The original group of editors from 1991 coined our motto for our paper, which is, The Voice shall not be silenced,” Duffel tells CJR. And we have stayed true to the spirit of that.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Some people still believe that a school newspaper is a public relations vehicle for the school. We obviously do not believe that, and neither does our principal.

 

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Did you always wanted to be a part of the school paper when you took up the teaching job at Bear Creek school?

It never entered my mind until it fell in my lap in 1991. I had been teaching for five years at a middle school. When the high school opened up, I was excited to teach more advanced classes. The teacher who had originally been assigned both newspaper and yearbook was pregnant, and she could not do both. And so it just kind of fell in my lap. I was the only teacher on staff who actually had a journalism degree. And I had worked on my college newspaper. So they asked me if I would like to the paper in the first year and I said, Sure!

 

How did this story develop?

Our news cycle begins with the editors sitting around with our staff writers in small groups. They pitch story ideas from news to sports, feature, entertainment and editorial. A student said, “I heard about this girl who’s pretty active in the porn industry, and a lot of kids are talking about her and saying things. I think she might really welcome the opportunity to set the record straight and tell her story because there’s a lot of rumors about her.” So Bailey Kirkeby, who’s my managing editor as well as news editor, had a class with the subject, Caitlin Fink. She said, “I’ll approach her and see if she’s willing to do this story.”

Caitlin was very excited. She said, “Everyday on this campus, people say things about me, sometimes very hurtful things and I would really welcome the opportunity so that people understand that I’m not just the girl who does porn, but that I’m a real person.” So that was really the impetus behind why the students decided to do this story.

My role as an advisor is to make sure that my students’ right to free speech is never violated. I’m there to make sure that they uphold the highest standards of professional journalism. But this paper belongs to them. It is their voice.

 

How do you understand the value of this story for the students who will read it?

I will say it in Bailey’s own words—this was in a response to the district when they first sent a letter to us on April 11, forbidding the publication until we submitted it to prior review. She says, “The primary focus of my story is on the hardships that Caitlin has experienced, such as failing her freshman year and having to leave her house, and how she managed to overcome those obstacles and create a successful, self-sustaining career for herself.” And she said, “My story does contain material about her adult entertainment career, but the focus is not on her videos themselves. Rather, the content is informative material about the industry, including its pay scale and its occupational risks.”

I think one of the goals of this story is that we want to show that the choices Caitlin has made are not easy choices. And I thought that maybe every boy who reads the story is going to think the next time they’re on one of those sites like Pornhub, that the woman he is viewing is a person. She has bills to pay, she has rent, she has utilities, and she’s not just some object for their pleasure. She’s a real person.

 

How did the school district find out about this story?

[We’re looking into it.] The superintendent wrote a letter to me saying, You are not to publish the story until I see it. [I suspect] there’s a privacy issue here—was Caitlin’s privacy violated in how the superintendent found out?—that nobody seems to be too concerned about. We will be following up on that aspect of it.

 

Did you ever imagine this story would generate such a controversy?

It never even crossed my mind.  I was shocked on April 11 when I received that letter. We just thought that this was just a usual profile that we do on one of our students, and this one happens to be an adult entertainment worker. That was the only difference for us. None of us anticipated all of this.

 

How has The Bruin Voice responded to administrative pressures?

We are working with a pro bono attorney, and he has read this story several times. We submitted the final draft to him on Sunday [April 28]. I expect he will sign off on the story. We will meet with him in person on Wednesday to just finalize our legal strategy before the story comes out on Friday, May 3.

 

Your job seems to be on the line. What motivates you to stand by your ideals in this situation?

I have to trust the First Amendment and the law to protect me. I have to trust that my expertise and my professionalism and my judgment in reviewing this story, and the judgment of our attorneys, will be enough to appease the district. I have had to shell out money to hire my own attorneys in the past, but I will never allow prior review of The Bruin Voice, which is basically overreach by the district.

 

Tell me about previous instances in the past when administrators have put pressure on the Bruin Voice.

In 2011, we wrote a story about the school principal losing his set of master keys, and the costs of rekeying the school, which the school district had to bear. We also wrote about the same principal setting up an illegal math course for minority students without their parents permission. After these stories ran, he required that we submit the entire paper to him a week in advance of publication. [That principal resigned in 2011.]

In 2013, we wrote a story criticizing the school safety policy, and all 1,700 copies of the paper were confiscated by the principal at that time. I said to her, You understand that the moment you leave with those newspapers, my students are going to be on the phone with every media organization within a 60-miles radius and you are going to be on the six o’clock news. And she looked at me and she said, You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do. And she marched out of my room with all 1,700 copies and, lo and behold, she was on the six o’clock news.

This story was packaged to the board members as being some sort of salacious, scandalous, aggrandizing of the porn industry, and that it was going to defame Caitlin’s parents. Well, that’s not what the story is about at all. But that’s the way the superintendent told this to the board. You can tell by their questions that they are under a completely false interpretation of what this story is about, and that’s their own fault. They just fired legal threats at us without knowing anything about the story, and they made some assumptions that were clearly inaccurate.

 

I thought that maybe every boy who reads the story is going to think the next time they’re on one of those sites like Pornhub, that the woman he is viewing is a person. She has bills to pay, she has rent, she has utilities, and she’s not just some object for their pleasure.

 

Has the widespread media coverage affected the Bruin Voice’s approach to the piece?

I don’t think it’s particularly affected the piece. Bailey [the reporter] has stayed determined to tell the story accurately, and she has not been dissuaded. She’s not lost the intent, and neither has my staff. For us, this is just another story, and it’s business as usual. All this media attention is going to go away in a week or so. It will all die down and we will be left doing what we do best, and that is telling stories.

ICYMI: A newsroom was told by management to run a “vile” editorial. Staffers made a bold move.

 

Are you concerned about the impact of media coverage—from the Bruin Voice story or elsewhere—on the student engaged in sex work?

In the first few stories that came out in the media, the identity of the student was not revealed. However, now that is not the case. She has been very open with us about some of the things she has experienced, but I never got the feeling that the fallout from the story was not something that she would be able to handle responsibly. I think just hearing her say to me, I’m really tired of the things people say about me and I really want people to know who I am. I think that that was the start of me saying, This girl has a right to tell her story and that the district has no right to stop her from telling her story.

She’s received invitations from various media outlets who have reached out to her. We have told her to hold off on doing any interviews for the time being, until the story has been published and she has been very respectful about it. We may continue to work with Caitlin to ensure that she understands what her rights are, because she’s the one that seems to have been lost in all this.

 

Now that the story is out to the whole world, do you see school administrators changing their mind?

Every time you try to censor the press, the district always has to learn the hard way. When you try to silence our voice, all it does is make our voice louder. I heard yesterday that it hit in the UK, in The Daily Mail. It’s gone global. When they tried to censor the school safety story, that went global as well. We got messages from people in Australia. My overriding goal in reaching out and sharing the story with the media is to say to the district, Every time you attempt this type of overreach, this type of abusive power, you will be held accountable, not just to me, not just in my students, but to everyone.

 

How has the rest of the school reacted to the controversy around this story?

My students have been nothing more than supportive. Old editors have reached out. But there are members of the school staff who have gone up to the principal and told her that Bruin Voice should not be publishing this story. Some people still believe that a school newspaper is a public relations vehicle for the school. We obviously do not believe that, and neither does our principal.

 

Ever consider leaving your job at the school and maybe working for a regular newsroom?

No. I love the fact that, as an English teacher, I get to go to work every day with students and teach them Hemingway. I also love the fact that I get to teach generation after generation, a whole new group of students, that they have a voice, and that voice needs to be respected.

 

What would you do if you’re fired?

I would take legal action against the district.

 

ICYMI: A reporter attended a school board meeting for 3 hrs, longer than other journalists present. That ended up being a very good decision.

This story has been updated to clarify a response from Duffel.

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Zainab Sultan is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.