InFocus, district embroiled in censorship controversy

Ethan Chen and Kira Sterling

Following a request from representatives of the Palo Alto Unified School District to cease airing its spoof of the reality TV program “The Bachelor,” Palo Alto High School broadcast publication InFocus News has removed all related content from its website and placed the program on hold. 

Infocus Equipment and Web Manager Cody Hmelar said that on Tuesday he was instructed by Paly Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson to remove all content from the InFocus site and posts from its social media that pertained to the program.

Over the previous days, InFocus had aired segments encouraging Paly students to apply to be the next Bachelor, and published applicants’ submitted audition tapes. InFocus also conducted polling on its Instagram page, where students could vote for their favorite candidates to determine the ultimate Paly Bachelor.

Despite requests made by Hmelar to wait for a response from his executive producers and InFocus adviser Rodney Satterthwaite, Hmelar said Berkson insisted on the removal of the posts immediately. 

“I was doing my interview [with Esther Wojcicki, adviser to The Campanile] and he [Berkson] kept interrupting, not even knocking, just coming in and being like, yeah, is this down yet?” Hmelar said. “At that point, it was kind of pressuring.”

Berkson declined to comment.

Infocus Executive Producer Maddie Druker said that a Wednesday meeting with district General Council Komey Vishakan caused her to feel similarly pressured.

“The district brought up a lot of worst case scenario concerns that are really overblown and we doubt would happen at all,” Druker said. “But, obviously, they’re worried about the response from the community.”

Berkson’s actions come after Satterthwaite denied a request from the district to instruct InFocus reporters to cancel the program.

“My understanding at one point was it was a directive from the district for me to tell students to do that [remove the program],” Satterthwaite said. “I wasn’t going to do that because I think that’s a violation.”

Limiting what students can and cannot publish is illegal in the state of California under Education Code 48907. In essence, the code states that student journalists are entitled to full freedom of the press, and that restraint of material is unlawful except for cases where material is obscene, libelous, or slanderous, if the material incites unlawful behavior, or if the material disrupts the orderly operation of the school.

As a student publication, InFocus is protected under EdCode 48907. But Hmelar said that since teachers are required to play InFocus during instructional minutes, the situation gets a little more complex.

“Since InFocus is a mandated viewership, we are monitored a lot more closely than The Campanile, or Voice, on what we publish,” Hmelar said.

According to Druker, despite the actions taken by the district, InFocus’ Bachelor spinoff will continue to air, and InFocus plans to make previous runs available to the public again.

“The segment is not canceled,” Druker said. “Students have showed overwhelming support for us and continuing the segment. We think we just might have to make some tweaks to it, but we’re still figuring out what those will be.”

Hmelar said that InFocus News hopes to come up with a compromise with the district soon. 

“We don’t want to aggravate the school district too much,” Hmelar said “So we’re not going to be republishing at least maybe until Friday or until we have further notice from them.”

The Paly Voice will follow with updates to the story.