Sunday, January 4, 2009

Stop (or is it 'Start'?) the (School) Presses: California Legislature Does the Right Thing on Student Speech

Way back in 1987, I wrote an article for my high school newspaper urging the Supreme Court to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists against school administrators' censorship of controversial articles. Shockingly, my prose failed to persuade the Court, which instead held in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that
educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. This standard is consistent with our oft-expressed view that the education of the Nation's youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, and state and local school officials, and not of federal judges. It is only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production, or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose that the First Amendment is so "directly and sharply implicate[d]," as to require judicial intervention to protect students' constitutional rights.
[Citations omitted.] In other words, under the US Constitution, public school principals are basically free to censor school newspapers as long as they can conjure up some "legitimate pedagogical concern[]" for doing so. I'm sure it isn't hard.

California, I am happy to say, doesn't much heed the US Supreme Court on this issue. Of course, states can give students more free-speech protection than the First Amendment requires -- and California has. California even goes so far to grant significant free speech protections to students at private high schools (except if they're "controlled by a religious organization") and universities. (Though, frankly, I'm not comfortable with the government imposing such restrictions on private schools; seems to me that being forced to "speak" through student newspapers that bear their names violates their own First Amendment rights.)

California school administrators understandably don't like these restrictions on their ability to control their students' newspapers, and apparently have tried to get around them by disciplining student newspapers' faculty advisors if they allow embarrassing speech. Well, no more. As the LA Times reports:
When California public schools resume classes Monday, high school and college journalism advisors will be protected by a new state law designed to promote 1st Amendment freedoms.

The so-called Journalism Teacher Protection Act, which became law Thursday, prohibits school administrators from retaliating against advisors for trying to protect student press freedoms.

The measure, the most stringent of its kind in the nation, closes a loophole in state law that for years has ensured free speech rights for students but failed to guarantee protections for advisors, according to supporters. They say administrators have been able to exercise de facto campus censorship by clamping down on journalism advisors.
The indispensable Student Press Law Center further explains here that the new law "protects an employee from being 'dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against' for solely acting to protect a pupil's speech, or for refusing an administrator's order to illegally censor speech." California's government is massively screwed up, but this time it did the right thing. Kudos.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Ben. This is an important new law. High school journalism teachers deserve this kind of protection when they support their journalism students.


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