As of Jan. 1, 2009, a new California law offers journalism advisors and other school employees increased protection from retaliatory administrative action for material published by their students.
The Journalism Teacher Protection Act modified four sections of the California Education Code that deal with free speech rights of students in an effort to expand protection for their teachers. The legislation adds a new paragraph to sections 48907, 48950, 66301, and 94367 that states: “An employee shall not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against solely for acting to protect a pupil engaged in the conduct authorized under this section, or refusing to infringe upon conduct that is protected by this section, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, or Section 2 of Article I of the California Constitution.”
The law had faced several hurdles in its path to enactment, including a delay caused by a legislative backlog during a government budget stalemate and hostility from the University of California system. (See “Bill to Protect Journalism Teachers Passes California Legislature; Awaits Governor Approval” in the Summer 2008 Silha Bulletin).
The law was initially introduced by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), and was officially titled S.B. 1370. It passed 72-1 in the California State Assembly and 31-2 in the Senate before being signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 28, 2008.
“Allowing a school administration to censor in any way is contrary to the democratic process and the ability of a student newspaper to serve as the watchdog and bring sunshine to the actions of school administrators,” Yee said in a statement after the law was signed. “It is quite disheartening to hear, that after we specifically prohibited prior restraint by administrators, that some are engaging in this type of nefarious activity and even firing quality teachers because of content in the student newspaper.”
Adam Keigwin, Yee’s communications director, said in a Sept. 29, 2008 story from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) that he gets phone calls from journalism advisers who have to choose between either violating the law by censoring a newspaper or facing potential retaliation from administrators.
“We had about a dozen cases or so prior to introducing the bill,” Keigwin said. “And then since introducing the bill, there’s been probably another dozen or so in terms of calls that I’ve gotten from college professors and high school journalism advisers who are saying ‘oh yeah, this happened to me, too.’”
Colorado Revised Statute 22-1-120 and Kansas Statute 72-1506(e) are the only other state statutes that prohibit retaliation against teachers who advise student publications, the SPLC reported. The California law is even broader than these states’ laws, because it applies to all modes of lawful student speech, not just publications.
“Teachers losing their jobs for refusing to censor their students’ news reporting is a real and pervasive problem, and it is going on all too commonly in America’s schools,” SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said.
In a January 12 story in The San Joaquin Record, California Newspaper Publishers Association attorney Jim Ewert said he hopes the law will stop a trend that has resulted in at least 15 teachers being punished for protecting student speech rights in the past three years.
“It’s kind of sad that we even had to do it,” Ewert said. “No other state in the country has had these kind[s] of incidents where teachers have been reassigned over free speech.”
Janet Ewell, who oversaw an award-winning journalism program at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove, Calif., lost her adviser job in 2002 after her students wrote editorials criticizing filthy bathrooms and bad cafeteria food. According to a Jan. 5, 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times, her experience was often cited by supporters of the new law to demonstrate its necessity.
Ewell, who was reassigned as an English teacher at the same school, said in the Times story that she sympathized with school administrators who are under pressure to make their schools look good, but that the bottom line is that student newspapers are not publicity newsletters for principals.
She said she hopes the new law will ensure that stories are published, regardless of how they may be perceived. “It’s wonderful to see that people care about 1st Amendment rights and care about protecting students’ rights,” Ewell said.
– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant