The right to just say no

National | Parents' abstinence ads censored by public-school officials

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

Independence is still a source of contention here in this Boston-area town. Just ask Douglas Yeo, a parent who for five years has battled the town's school district over what his children are to be taught about sex.

The battle is shaping up into a Supreme Court fight, now that an appellate court has given Mr. Yeo's minutemen a boost. The dispute is over abstinence-not "abstinence only," the message of some curricula, but any mention of abstinence at all. Even in the public schools of Chautauqua County, N.Y.-where AIDS predator Nushawn Williams allegedly was able to infect, directly or indirectly, some 100 young women and girls with the HIV virus-abstinence is mentioned. "You might spend the first 20 minutes [of a two-week sex-ed course] on abstinence," Jamestown High School principal Terry Redman said in USA Today.

In Lexington, Mass., school students don't even get those 20 minutes. Officials there have handed out condoms for years; why not at least address abstinence, Mr. Yeo wondered in 1992. The school's health curriculum included a list of 30 specific sexual acts ("I didn't know what 15 of them were, and I'm not sheltered," Mr. Yeo says), and he was troubled; he didn't want his two daughters sitting through such a one-sided indoctrination.

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Nevertheless, Mr. Yeo was reluctant to take his daughters out of the public schools; both are talented musicians, and the local private schools do not have comparable music programs. And besides, he says, he chose to live in Lexington because of the high reputation of the public schools there.

But when he went to the school board, he was told, essentially, to sit down and shut up. The district wasn't interested in the subject of abstinence.

Because he refused to shut up (he got a spot on the next week's meeting agenda and had his say), he found himself heading a slowly coalescing group of parents, which eventually became LexNet, the Lexington Parents Information Network. "I seemed an unlikely person," admits Mr. Yeo. "I'm not an expert on sex ed-in fact, I've only had sex with one person in my whole life. And I'd never seen a condom before."

What's more, Mr. Yeo is employed in the arts (a traditionally liberal sector). He plays bass trombone for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops, and he teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music. But his message produced discord; schools must be "realistic" about the sexual proclivities of students, Mr. Yeo was told.

"When they told me it's not possible for teenagers to refrain from sex, I just pointed to myself," he says. "And I pointed out that condoms don't make sex safe, and that we're not out there promoting 'safe smoking.' We didn't want to stop the sex education; we just wanted a balanced, realistic picture presented."

When the schools rejected the parents' attempts to get the abstinence message into the sex-ed curriculum, LexNet turned to advertising. Parents attempted to buy space in the school newspaper; the ad read: "We Know You Can Do It! abstinence: The Healthy Choice." The school turned down the ads as unacceptable.

The paper had already published an editorial lauding the condom policy. Clearly, the ads were rejected because of their viewpoint, not their subject matter. Mr. Yeo and LexNet decided to fight. Like the opening battles of the American Revolution, there were two skirmishes. First, the parents gathered enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot; it failed, 54-46 percent.

"Remember the Lexington green," Mr. Yeo told the discouraged parents. "There were nine minutemen dead, and no British. In the long run, though, it was a victory."

The second skirmish came in court. Represented by the Rutherford Institute, Mr. Yeo sued for the right to run the LexNet ad. He lost at the federal district level, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last summer that he had, indeed, been discriminated against.

"The record evidence shows that LexNet abstinence ads were not refused ultimately on the grounds that they were political or advocacy ads that violated some policy, but instead were rejected because the school publications deemed them objectionable ... ," the court ruled. And because the publications are taxpayer-funded, they constitute a legitimate public forum.

While they are allowed to establish reasonable policies for banning certain ads, they are not allowed to reject acts arbitrarily and with a stated policy.

"Naturally, I'm the bad guy in town," Mr. Yeo grins. His favorite bumper sticker is one that he sees from time to time: "Yeo, Doug! Get a Life!"


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