Unpopular opinion column brings Tremonton student fame, grief
Marie Griffin and Joe Dougherty
When Jeremy Brinkerhoff, a senior at Bear River High School in Tremonton, signed on with his school newspaper, the Searchlight, he had no idea he'd be tackled during a pep rally. And he really had no idea he'd become the subject of media coverage across Utah.
It all started with his opinion column, "The O'Brinkly Factor."
Brinkerhoff wrote about "in" groups, like football players and cheerleaders, and "out" groups, like band members and geeks.
"Stereotypes, and not cliques, produce ignorance. Cliques are healthy," he said, portraying commonly held stereotypes. "We have a handful of people on the football team, and when they win, I can hardly make it through the halls without being suffocated by their gigantic heads. Yet for some reason, girls like big heads. Maybe this is because it makes up for their stupidity."
Brinkerhoff made the rundown, from geeks picking their noses to cheerleaders dressing like Britney Spears, and ended with, "The paragraph above is a perfect example of what you should not be like."
Bear River Principal Dale Thomas says some readers probably didn't make it to the end before throwing down the paper. He thinks Brinkerhoff's concluding disclaimer should have been placed higher in the column to prevent misunderstanding.
"To me you're inciting individuals to rise up and respond," Thomas said.
Brinkerhoff said he only wanted people to see how stereotypes can be destructive. "I thought everyone was going to be like, 'Ha ha. Good one, Brink.'" But that's not exactly how things went.
Football Assistant Coach Matthew Hyde strongly encouraged him to attend the schooląs pep assembly, Brinkerhoff says. "He's the one that did it all."
Hyde stood up during the rally and called Brinkerhoff to the front of the gymnasium, where two defensive linemen in uniform but no padding tackled him to the ground at the blow of a whistle, he says.
Brinkerhoff says the boys got a running start. When they collided, he slid across the floor, burning his elbow. Nothing else was injured, except his pride.
Thomas said, "I should have stopped the thing, but I didnąt think of it at the time."
Hyde issued both private and public apologies, which Brinkerhoff accepted, saying he felt the coach was remorseful. To him, the principal seemed concerned only that the article had been written in the first place. Brinkerhoff requested a spot in the Searchlight to make his rebuttal.
End of story, right? Wrong.
The real deal
Brinkerhoff submitted a column titled "Mike Tyson: Eat 'em and Weep,' which was subsequently rejected by the Searchlight's adviser, Heidi Jensen.
"I have come to the conclusion that a great majority of this school 'misinterpreted' my last article," he wrote. "There are stereotypes about everyone, and ... they are all rude and incorrect." But that isn't what was really on Brinkerhoff's mind.
"Now, let's talk about the real deal," he said, criticizing the administration for its lack of support for him. "I have been told to show respect for my elders, regardless. This is hard for me when my elders include bin Laden, Bill Clinton, Ken Lay, Saddam, pedophile priests, and the coaches and administration at Bear River."
Jensen said, "He had a lot of harsh anger. I don't blame him. He felt he'd been humiliated."
The column was cut.
Not only did the administration and faculty lack support at the pep assembly, Brinkerhoff says, but by not allowing his side of the story to be told, its actions were two-faced and negligent.
"I am really critical in that article," he said, but noted that Jensen didn't attempt to work with him in revising it.
He submitted a new column, this time about respect. He charted reasons for having written the stereotypes article, but when it came time to release feelings about his teachers and leaders, Brinkerhoff resorted to, "We, the student body, want school pride, and to accomplish this, we need to scrap the prejudices against the athletic teams, the faculty and the administration."
This column ran, but without its concluding paragraph, which included this: "The school pride at Bear River would shoot through the roof if the administration would be at least a tiny bit compromising and logical."
He doesn't feel he ever fully got a chance to make his case. Brinkerhoff says he had already begun to feel censorship's grasp when, prior to the pep assembly, two other columns were not allowed to be printed.
But is it really censorship?
Donald Meyers seems to think so. Meyers is the editorial page editor of The Daily Herald in Provo and president of the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Meyers said a principal should not play the role of publisher, since local government employs him. High school journalism should run similarly to professional journalism. In other words, columns that follow fair comment and are not libelous or obscene should be allowed to run. Otherwise, he said, "You're not teaching students real journalism.
"The idea of the editorial page is to get people to think," Meyers said. It should nudge them out of their comfort zones. "Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed [high school administrators to censor the newspaper]." Anything potentially disruptive to the education process can be cut. This provides administrators with a "very subjective, discretionary call," he said.
In 1988, the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over style and content of student speech in school-sponsored, expressive activities."
The opinion of the Court goes on to say students aren't relieved of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the school's gate. However, the Court says, "First Amendment rights are not coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings."
Penny Byrne, a professor of media law at Utah State University, said high-school students have virtually no freedoms.
Thomas says, "We're going to edit just like anyone else. It's one thing to write, and it's another thing to write properly."
The Supreme Court backs him on this, too.
In Hazelwood, the high court said a school, in its role as publisher, may disassociate itself from speech that is ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched and biased or prejudiced.
"We don't want errors," Thomas says. "We want things that portray what goes on here, rather than what one thinks goes on here."
The editor's desk
Jensen says she really has her work cut out for her.
She took over the post as journalism teacher and newspaper adviser about two and one-half years ago when the former occupant of her position, Terry Munns, fell ill and eventually passed away in December, 2000.
"I know he's looking down on me," Jensen said.
Besides the normal editing criteria of content, grammar and punctuation, Jensen says she looks for negativity in her students' writings. Since they are in high school, and therefore, less experienced, they tend to use unattributed emotion.
"They've had one journalism class," Jensen said, "but they're still learning."
Brinkerhoff has a story different from most of her students. He never took a journalism class at Bear River High. "He's a really good writer, but he hasn't learned how to write like journalists write. He's learning the hard way how to write news articles."
She said she tells her students credibility is essential when they write, and it's OK to express their opinions if they can back them up with facts.
Meyers thinks a column should be treated differently from a regular story. Opinion should be included, especially when seeking to bring about change, he said. Meyers watches only for columns that make unnecessary arguments or attack specific people.
Brinkerhoff agrees he is still learning, but says he wants a fair opportunity to do so. He thinks the recent media coverage has given him a chance to make his case. "I'm glad the media took it up," he said.
After making his mark at Bear River High School, Brinkerhoff plans to continue making his case. His sights are set on Harvard Law School.