District meets with Infocus after censorship attempt

Lucy Nemerov/The Campanile
Lucy Nemerov/The Campanile

Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson informed InFocus executive producers on Monday that Palo Alto Unified School District General Counsel Komey Vishakan had received complaints about a “Paly Bachelor” segment they planned to air, and that along with cutting the segment, all existing “Paly Bachelor” online and social media content would need to be deleted.

 In a meeting with both InFocus leadership and InFocus adviser Rodney Satterthwaite on Wednesday, Vishakan, however, denied asking for content to be deleted, only that it be put on hold.

Over the previous weekend, InFocus adviser Rodney Satterthwaite said he was notified via email that Berkson planned to meet with him on Monday, Jan 27. to communicate potential issues with the segment. Paly administration did not tell Satterthwaite that Vishakan would be at the meeting. 

According to Satterthwaite, during the Jan. 27 meeting Vishakan said community members, district administrators and school board members had complained to her about  the “Paly Bachelor” segment. She said these complaints included issues such as the sexualization of high school students, pressure to conform to societal norms and potential school disruption for those who didn’t make the cut.

According to InFocus Executive Producer Maddy Druker, Satterthwaite remained in contact with the InFocus staff and had plans to coordinate InFocus’ response with the leadership team. 

But on Jan. 28, before that could happen, Berkson, acting on instructions from the district, informed InFocus Manager Cody Hmelar that all content that mentioned the “Paly Bachelor” on YouTube, social media and the InFocus website would need to be removed.

Berkson, Druker, Satterthwaite and InFocus executive producer Max Rosenblum met with Vishakan on Jan. 29 to discuss her concerns. According to Rosenblum, Vishakan said she did not want to make an on-camera appearance or let the meeting be recorded. Berkson said he could not comment on the situation due to possible legal complications with the district and Vishakan did not respond to interview requests.

Rosenblum said at the meeting on Wednesday, Vishakan brought up her personal distaste for the segment citing “bad taste”  and “worst-case scenarios” as reasons students should not air the Paly Bachelor segment. According to Rosenblum, Vishakan did not bring up any specific examples of issues from the segment, but rather focused on the worst-case scenarios, going so far as to suggest that a student might take their life if rejected from the role.

“She did not point out any past examples of this causing problems but kept bringing up hypothetical worst-case scenarios,” Rosenblum said. “But when you only consider the worst possible scenario for anything, you’re just not gonna do anything.” 

Rosenblum said that Vishakan was also concerned with the sexual implications prompted by a Bachelor segment in light of recent Title IX scandals in the district, specifically citing the optional question on the segment’s interest form about a contestant’s sexual orientation. Rosenblum reported that Vishakan claimed the inclusion of sexual orientation in the survey proves the intention of making (the segment) sexual or romantic in nature.

“She asked about what would happen if information on student’s sexual orientation got out and they were bullied about their sexuality,” Rosenblum said. “But I’m assuming they would be okay with people knowing given that they included it in a form that people would obviously see.”

But Rosenblum said the concerns held by the district don’t seem to align with the realities of the InFocus segment.

“They think it’s like the actual ‘Bachelor’,” Rosenblum said. “But it’s a high school production, just the most hilarious little platonic thing ever … We don’t think that they actually looked at what we were doing.”

Rosenblum also said  InFocus has always intended for the segment to be satirical.

“We explained to her that it’s the most innocent thing ever. It’s honestly basically a satire on the fact that people think real romance comes from people in a game show format with cameras and all that,” Rosenblum said. “But she said it seemed like an underage dating app.”

Using that logic, Rosenblum said there are other common events held at Paly that seem to perpetuate the same problems of traditional roles and exclusion that Vishakan brought up.

“They talk about social conformity, but we have a week where everyone shows up dressed in the same clothes, right?” Rosenblum said. “They talk about people having their mental state disrupted because of getting rejected from something, but we have theater, where people are rejected from their dream roles, right?” 

When Satterthwaite asked Vikashan how many complaints she had received, he said that she would not give him a specific number, instead insisting that she had gotten a vague “many” complaints.

“The fact that the complaint came to the district before it came to anyone else is really weird, and it says a lot about who it’s coming from,” Rosenblum said. “Vikashan also said she did not know a lot about who the source was, and that the district had told her to do this.”

According to Rosenblum and Druker, if members of the Paly community expressed qualms about the show, they would take them into consideration, as their main goal is to cater to and entertain the Paly audience.

“If there are students who really hate it and find it offensive or uncomfortable, that’s definitely something to take into account and that would affect our decision regarding whether to air the segment,” Rosenblum said. “As far as I’m concerned, our job on InFocus is to provide information and entertainment to the Paly community. If no one has a problem with it in the community, I don’t see any problems with it.”

Rosenblum said InFocus may release a survey for Paly community members to express their feelings about the “Paly Bachelor.”

Both the InFocus staff and its adviser have taken issue with the district’s actions, worrying about the implications this decision holds in terms of the freedom of the student press. 

“From what we understand about student press, we cannot get legally prosecuted in any meaningful way for this,” Rosenblum said.

InFocus founder and Campanile adviser Esther Wojcicki, who is a representative of the Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., and who was present when Berkson relayed the district’s message to Hmelar, said California Education Code 48907 invalidates the district’s attempts to remove the “Paly Bachelor” from InFocus programming.

“The students have the right to publish this unless it is libelous, obscene or incites riot,” Wojcicki said. “(The “Paly Bachelor”) is not obscene. It is not libelous, and it does not incite people to riot.”

According to Satterthwaite and Rosenblum, InFocus editors plan to share a storyboard  of the segment with Vishakan, and want to work with District officials to reach a compromise. However, Satterthwaite said, students remain in contact with counsel from the Student Press Law Center and a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, and students will use this legal advice to determine how to proceed once the district provides its response to the storyboard.


Editors’ note: This story references Esther Wojcicki and Rodney Satterthwaite, who are both advisers to The Campanile. Neither adviser contributed to or had any influence on the reporting of this story.

This story will continue to be updated as more information becomes available. Check our Jan. 31 issue and www.thecampanile.org for more information.


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