Two California high school principals threatened their school newspapers after they disagreed with students’ editorial choices in spring 2008. Meanwhile, the California legislature passed a bill that would provide greater protection for journalism teachers, but budget issues stalled the bill at the Governor’s desk.
Flag-Burning Image Leads to Threats to Cut Student Newspaper
A controversial year-end edition of the Shasta High School Volcano in Redding, Calif., almost resulted in the paper’s demise.
The June 3, 2008 issue of the student newspaper featured an image of a Shasta High senior burning an American flag on the cover, and an editorial inside defending flag burning as protected free speech.
Shasta High School Principal Milan Woollard told the Redding Record Searchlight for a June 12 story that the student publication would not be brought back next year, and that the last issue had been embarrassing. Woollard said the paper had already been on the brink of extinction due to budget cuts.
“The paper’s done,” Woollard told the Record Searchlight. “There is not going to be a school newspaper next year.”
Shasta Union High School District Superintendent Mike Stuart told the Record Searchlight he thought the publication was “offensive” and “self-indulgent.”
In the end, however, school administrators reversed their decision to drop the paper after a discussion with next year’s editor-in-chief.
According to the June 12 Record Searchlight story, Volcano faculty adviser Judy Champagne said she had proofed the text for the controversial final issue, but could not recall if she saw the photograph of the burning flag. She said she felt sabotaged by the staff.
“I thought it was bad journalism,” Champagne told the Record Searchlight.
Senior and Volcano editor-in-chief Connor Kennedy, who wrote the editorial, defended his work as being neither secretive nor sabotage. In an e-mail to the Record Searchlight, he explained that seniors at the school had just finished a government class unit on free speech that specifically examined flag burning.
“In the high school community, (which) is the intended audience for the editorial, (the issue) is relevant and timely ,” Kennedy’s e-mail said, according to the Record Searchlight.
“I know for a fact that our advisor [sic] saw both the cover and the article connected with it, as she made final edits on both,” he wrote. “She did not voice any objections or concerns, and any claims that this was done without her consent are untrue.”
The initial decision to discontinue the paper drew the ire of advocacy groups who said the students were within their legal rights to publish the photo and editorial.
“I don’t think any newspaper should ever be discontinued as punishment for things students have written, especially when what they’ve written about is the defense of free speech and what they have said is absolutely correct,” said Terry Francke, general counsel of nonprofit free speech and press advocacy group Californians Aware, in a June 11 Associated Press (AP) story.
However, Francke said state law does not require schools to fund student newspapers or elective journalism classes.
District Superintendent Stuart told the Student Press Law Center that he decided to continue to provide funding for the paper after he spoke with next year’s editor-in-chief, Amanda Cope. Stuart said he hoped to contribute to the student’s editorial decision-making by introducing the student reporters to the staff of the Record Searchlight and asking editors at the local paper to mentor the students.
Cope said in a June 14 Record Searchlight story, “It’s excellent to have the paper back,” adding that she assured school officials that future editions of the Volcano would be “legitimate and professional.”
Stuart said in the June 14 Record Searchlight story that although the school would not seek to exercise greater editorial control over the paper, they would like to know about controversial articles in advance so that the administration is not “blindsided.”
“It’s OK to put controversial things in the paper,” Stuart said. “Putting your opinion out there is a brave thing to do. There ought to be a lot of thought that goes into that.”
Principal Apologizes for Pulling Copies of School Newspaper from Racks
A high school principal eventually apologized after a controversial image prompted him to have approximately 400 copies of the school’s newspaper removed from distribution racks, but hinted that school administration could play a greater role in overseeing the paper’s content in the future, according to a story in the June 2 Eureka, Calif. Times-Standard.
The controversy arose after the April edition of the Eureka High School Redwood Bark included a back page art feature depicting female nudity.
Eureka High School Principal Robert Steffen said in an April 30 Times-Standard story that offended students had asked for permission to remove extra copies of the paper from school distribution racks, and because he feared it might create a conflict in the student body, he instructed the school’s janitors to remove and recycle all undistributed copies of the 4-day-old paper.
“It wasn’t censorship so much as restricted circulation,” Steffen said, adding that he allowed the paper to keep the controversial drawing and accompanying story on the paper’s website at www.redwoodbark.net.
The drawing, by high school student Natalie Gonzalez, was pictured alongside a profile of the aspiring artist. The story addressed Gonzalez’s use of nudity in her artwork.
“Art is free, and if we want high school students to act as adults, we should treat them as adults, and expect them to take nudity in a mature way,” Gonzalez said in the Redwood Bark story. “And, I don’t ever want anyone, including myself, to be limited when it comes to art.”
Eureka City Schools Superintendent Gregg Haulk defended Steffen’s decision in the April 30 story in the Times-Standard.
“He pulled it off the rack because it was becoming a disruption to our learning environment. First and foremost, we are a learning institution.”
Steffen’s apology came to the student body via a letter published in the Redwood Bark, part of which was printed in the June 2 Times-Standard story.
“I apologize to the Redwood Bark staff for not allowing the normal course of disagreement to occur through letters to the editor,” Steffen wrote. “The administration will pay for the next edition of the Redwood Bark in a conciliatory move to build trust and demonstrate our interest in moving forward.”
Steffen’s letter also discussed implementing new policy measures for the student paper. “The hoped-for outcome of this controversy is that media students, administration and the school board work together for the mutual education of all concerned, and to clearly define a policy,” the letter states. “As it is now, many parents and others in the school public believe that school administration and the newspaper advisor should exhibit oversight of all publication content.”
Drew Ross, editor-in-chief of the Redwood Bark, told the Times-Standard that he is concerned that the administration will want to craft a detailed policy that might stifle some of the freedom the paper currently enjoys.
Redwood Bark faculty advisor Philip Middlemiss shares those concerns, according to the Times-Standard. “Suddenly, we’ve stirred the waters up and our ability to have that independence has been threatened,” Middlemiss said. “That’s probably the scariest part of this whole thing.”
If the school does institute a policy of prior review, it could be considered retaliatory and therefore illegal, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, in a June 3 story on the Student Press Law Center’s Web site. The story is available online at http://www.splc.org/newsflash.asp?id=1763&year=.
“If a school imposes prior review in retaliation for a specific editorial content decision that the school disagrees with, that may well violate the First Amendment,” LoMonte said. “The First Amendment says a school can’t take any action that would chill the legitimate expression of free-speech rights, and putting in place a new review requirement that didn’t exist before would certainly cause students to censor their own speech.”
Bill to Protect Journalism Teachers Passes California Legislature; Awaits Governor Approval
A bill that aims to protect journalism teachers at all levels of public education from being disciplined for protecting students’ rights to free speech passed in the California Senate by a 31-2 vote on August 5 and is now awaiting the approval of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger .
SB 1370 states “An employee shall not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against 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 bill passed the California State Assembly by a 67-6 vote on June 16. According to an August 6 story from the Student Press Law Center, Schwarzenegger has asked that no other bills be sent to him until the state’s budget is passed. After receiving the bill, the governor will have 12 days to sign or veto it. If the bill is not given to the governor before session ends Aug. 31, he has until Sept. 30 to address it. The story is available at http://www.splc.org/newsflash.asp?id=1795. Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), the bill’s author, said in an August 5 press release that he expects the governor to sign the bill into law, because Schwarzenegger “has consistently supported our efforts to make sure true freedom of the press is alive and well on our campuses.”
Legislative proponents of the bill argued that it is necessary to fully ensure the freedom of speech that is extended to California students. Since 1992, California law has protected student publications to the fullest extent of the U.S. and California constitutions through Cal. Educ. Code section 48950.
According to an April 15 AP story about an earlier version of the bill, California Newspaper Publishers Association lawyer Jim Ewert said faculty advisers in California have recently been fired or reassigned at least 12 times because of material written by student reporters.
Opponents of the bill have argued that the measure is overly broad. The Association of the California School Administrators (ACSA) said in a statement that the bill could lead to teachers using it to get out of discipline or reprimands. “ACSA has heard of numerous situations whereby a teacher has used poor judgment under the guise of student freedom of speech,” said the statement, reprinted in the bill’s analysis, available online at http://info.sen.ca.gov/pub/07-08/bill/sen/sb_1351-1400/sb_1370_cfa_20080617_141558_sen_floor.html. “The school principal must be able to utilize discretion when coming in contact with these situations. Teachers are the adults that must be held accountable for their students, even in the case of a school newspaper, yearbook, or other written materials.”
The University of California wrote a letter to Sen. Yee informing him that it would not observe SB 1370 if it were passed. The letter, dated June 16, stated that existing law and school policies “already afford substantial freedom of speech protections for students and faculty.”
“Although the University goes to great lengths to ensure academic and speaking freedoms, we must also have the right to take appropriate measures if a faculty member or UC employee fails to observe instruction standards or University policies that are appropriate to the academic environment,” the letter stated. The university’s constitutional status gives it discretion in implementing state law, said university spokesman Brad Hayward in a June 23 story on the Web site Inside Higher Ed. In this case, the bill proposes to amend section 66301 of the California Education Code, which is within Part 40 of the Education Code. Another section of Part 40, section 67400, states, “No provision of [Part 40] shall apply to the University of California except to the extent that the Regents of the University of California, by appropriate resolution, make that provision applicable.” The story is at http://insidehighered.com/news/2008/06/23/press.
– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant