High school journalists published a pro-Hitler quote heard on campus. This is what happened next

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 19, 2021: The California State Capitol dome was lit at 2:30pm Tuesday in unison with efforts across the country to memorialize lives lost to Covid on January 19, 2021 in Sacramento, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The California State Capitol in Sacramento. Students at a high school in the city published a pro-Hitler quote heard on campus, sparking anger and debate. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The student newspaper at C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento published a list late last month of anonymous quotes dubbed "some of the weirdest stuff" heard on campus.

The listicle included odd but innocuous lines such as: "My hamster ate its babies last night," overheard in a hallway. And, "Please, stop licking my armpits," heard in a history class.

Then there was this: "Hitler's got some good ideas" — a line purportedly overheard in a government class.

The decision by student editors at the newspaper, the Prospector, to publish the remark has sparked a debate about cavalier antisemitism on campus and the right of the press — including the student press — to publish offensive speech.

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In an email to families Sunday night, Principal Andrea Egan called the quote "deeply offensive" and said she promptly met with the journalism students to discuss "the importance of exercising good judgment in their editorial decision-making."

"Please know that I am navigating this to the best of my ability within student publications' laws governing free speech," Egan wrote. "Nothing is more important to me than the wellness of the students and staff who come to our schoolhouse daily."

Brian Heap, a spokesman for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said in a statement that the remark, allegedly overheard in a classroom, was not reported to a teacher or administrator before publication.

It was published as part of a listicle titled "What Did You Say?"

The introduction to the list of nine quotes read: "Have you ever heard something while walking in the school hallways and thought, 'That is the strangest and weirdest thing I have ever heard in my life'? Well, we asked you to share with us some of the weirdest stuff you've heard. Here are some of our favorites."

In an email to The Times, Samantha Archuleta, the faculty advisor for the journalism program, emphasized that the Prospector's staff is composed of "14-17 year olds learning to navigate journalism."

"All choices — topics, writing, editing, publishing — are made by students, so there will be inevitable errors," Archuleta wrote. But she stressed that their right to publish is protected by California law and the 1st Amendment.

"Yes, our 'explainer' was too simplistic and unsophisticated, given the sensitivity of the quote, and we've discussed this error as a staff and addressed how to avoid it in the future," she wrote. "But to be clear, the offending quote was from a student on campus, not a Prospector journalist — the Prospector was merely reporting what the student said."

In a statement on the Prospector's website, the student journalists said their intent was for the listicle to "expose things that are said on campus that are inappropriate at different levels."

"While some quotations may be innocuous or even funny, none of them were meant to be seen as light-hearted, celebrated, or condoned. Instead, we hope to hold up a mirror to our richly diverse community and expose the things we and others on campus overhear daily," the statement reads.

The statement said the Hitler comment was made by a student who was speaking among friends and was not part of a classroom discussion.

"We do believe that addressing the quotes has sparked a much-needed conversation, but the situation has escalated into something we did not intend. ... It’s deeply concerning that these remarks are being said on campus without proper action from staff," the statement reads.

The controversy at McClatchy High School comes at a volatile time, with protests over the Israel-Hamas war roiling university campuses nationwide and student journalists providing some of the most detailed, up-to-the-minute coverage of the unrest.

At UCLA last week, four student journalists who work for the Daily Bruin were attacked — sprayed with Mace and pummeled — by pro-Israel counterdemonstrators who violently clashed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators in an encampment on campus.

The decision by the Prospector staff to publish the quote also comes amid a surge in antisemitism on school campuses — as well as a rise in vandalism at synagogues and Jewish stores, restaurants and institutions. There also has been a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment and attacks nationwide.

Jay Schenirer, president of Congregation B'Nai Israel, a synagogue in the same neighborhood as McClatchy High School, told The Times that children and teenagers in his congregation were hurting and scared because of the rhetoric at their schools and that they were taking the publication of the pro-Hitler quote seriously.

It was particularly alarming, he said, that the quote was published in a list of seemingly lighthearted quotes.

"It's hard to imagine anyone would find this funny," said Schenirer, a former Sacramento City Council member whose children had attended McClatchy.

On Sunday, he said, some 70 people attended a meeting at Congregation B'Nai Israel to discuss the incident, antisemitism at local schools, and how to make sure students feel safe.

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They composed a list of recommendations for schools, including: designating an adult to whom students can report incidents of antisemitism; providing "administrators with additional education about free speech and where is the line, when it is crossed, and how to deal with it"; and standardizing high school ethnic studies curriculum throughout the district.

Schenirer said he had spoken multiple times with Principal Egan since the student newspaper's publication of the offensive quote.

"We need to take this seriously," he said. "We can't stand by on the sidelines. We need to be very proactive about this."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.