New law blocks school newspaper censorship
Freedom of the press is always a choice topic in high school journalism classes, especially among those who have responsibility for producing the school's newspaper. So many cheered a few weeks ago when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Teacher Protection Law, a measure sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association to shield high school and college journalism advisers from discipline or removal from their positions for refusing to censor stories published in student newspapers. The new state law, SB 1370, pushed through the legislature by State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) specifically prohibits a school employer from dismissing, suspending, disciplining, reassigning, transferring or otherwise retaliating against an employee solely for acting to protect a pupil engaged in conduct protected by statute, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or Section 2 of Article I of the California Constitution. Besides the CNPA, which this newspaper belongs to, the measure was also supported by the California Teachers Association and the ACLU. It would also clarify that a graduating student can challenge a disciplinary action for engaging in protected speech activities if the action was taken while the student was still enrolled at the school.
The new law probably wouldn't have helped Nicholas Lassonde a few years ago when, at age 17 and one of two class salutatorians at Amador Valley High School, he was told by his principal that he could not elaborate on his strong Christian beliefs in his commencement speech. He still addressed the 424 graduates, their families and friends at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, but about halfway through his speech, the A+ student announced to the audience that the next sequence had been censored by school officials. Students, dressed in purple caps and gowns, erupted into boos. "Unfortunately, the school district does not believe the rest of my speech is appropriate,'' said Lassonde, adding that scripts of the entire address were being passed out in the parking lot or were available on his website. He later read the speech in its entirety before an overflow congregation at Grace Church of Pleasanton.
The need for protecting journalism advisers has sharpened in the past couple of years. An increasing number of experienced journalism teachers have been removed from their positions by principals because the teachers refused to heed the principal's demands to kill embarrassing or critical stories published by student journalists. A few years back, a teacher sued a student newspaper reporter and journalism advisor at Foothill High for a story that he thought was personally critical. Counselors at the school complained two years ago when the editors of the student newspaper, In-flight, wrote a detailed story about counseling services. The story, itself, was not the issue, but the editors and journalism advisor came under fire for not catching and changing headlines and subheads that were misleading and somewhat inflammatory.
Reacting to the governor's action, Foothill teacher Margie McLaughlin, who formerly taught journalism at the school, said that since we have not had to make use of the Shield Law here in Pleasanton, "all I can say is that Governor Schwarzenegger's action gives a strong vote of support for California's journalism teachers."
"In our litigious-crazy culture, it is a sigh of relief for many journalism teachers who now can focus on instruction and implementing sound journalistic codes among their staffs rather than spending the time worrying about possible future legal repercussions. Responsible journalism is responsible journalism. No teacher allows a paper to go to press without having previously drilled into his or her staff the crux of reporting: that a reporter needs to report accurately, truthfully, and responsibly. If this is done, the reporter can carry on with his or her journalistic duties with confidence."
It's just now with a higher degree of confidence now that SB1370 passed.