New bill helps teachers protect student media

Kari Thumlert

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted April 8 to pass a bill that would make it illegal for California high school and college administrators or school boards to “retaliate” against employees for defending students’ First Amendment free speech rights.

Senate Bill 1370, titled the “Journalism Teacher Protection Act,” states it will prohibit “an employee from being dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for trying to protect students’ First Amendment rights.

Senator Leland Yee wrote the bill after he was informed by several former journalism advisers of a strategy being used statewide by some administrators to stop unwanted coverage, said Adam Keigwin, Communication Director for Senator Yee.

Several existing California Education Codes prohibit college and high school administrators and school boards from censoring press and disciplining a student “solely on the basis” of his or her speech.

At least four different cases were brought to Yee’s attention about former journalism advisers who claim their actions to back their students’ First Amendment rights lead to them to being replaced/removed/reassigned from their position.

The first was Darryl Adams, who taught within the Los Angeles Unified School District for 22 years. Adams said he was “replaced” and later “stripped” of all his “professional duties” after the student newspaper Jaguar Times at South East High School, published an editorial criticizing random searches conducted on campus in December 2006.

“A student wrote an editorial criticizing the random searches conducted on campus and said that if the school treated the students like animals they would act like animals,” said Adams.

“In a span of four months they all but stripped me of my professional existence,” Adams said.

Principal Jesus Angulo at South East High School did not respond to phone calls or emails regarding Adams’ claims.

The second case involved Janet Ewell, a tenured teacher and certified journalism educator at Rancho Alamitos High School, who said school officials attempted to remove her as the newspaper advisor in 2002, but failed. They attempted it again in 2005 and finally succeeded.

Ewell suspects she was removed because the administration was unhappy with editorials about the “conditions in the school bathrooms, (the quality of) school lunches and the difficulty of accessing some teachers.”

The former Principal Gene Campbell at RAHS could not be reached for comment by press time.

Teri Hu, the teacher involved in the third case, said she suspects the reason for her removal is because the student newspaper The Voice published two articles, “expos(ing) problems at Irvington (High School) that embarrassed our administration.” One story was picked up by outside media.

The story picked up by the media involved an incident in March 2004 where “a teacher told a student to ‘go back where you came from,’ stirring up anger and resentment amongst the immigrant students on campus.”

Hu said that when The Voice wanted to interview the professor, the administration was notified and the vice principal asked Hu and the paper’s editor-in-chief to “kill the story.” Ten weeks after the incident occurred, Hu was removed from her position after she supported the editor’s decision to run the story.

The Principal Pete Murchison at Irvington High School said Hu’s claims were false, but did not give any other reason for her termination.

Ellen Kersey’s case is the last. Kersey said she was one year from retirement from Adolfo Camarillo High School when she was fired as journalism adviser in 2001 after a few stories displeased the principal at her school.

Because of a hostage situation that occurred on another district campus in which the suspect was killed, two student editors got the idea to explore how easy it is to get on and off high school campuses without being detected, she said.

Kersey suspects that the principles from the other campuses called and berated her principal, “Thus he was angry at me for letting it happen.”

The current Principal Glenn Lipman at ACHS did not respond to e-mail or phone calls. Reaction from proponents to the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimous vote of the bill was elation. Adams said that he is pleased that the Senate Judicial Committee acknowledges the “importance to support freedom of speech of the students by protecting the job security of those who are trying to empower young minds.”

Now that SB 1370 has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee it will go the Senate for a vote and is due to be approved? early next week, said Keigwin.

If the bill amendment is passed by the California Legislature, it will be the first law of its kind.

The Association of California Schools Administrators and the Association of California School Boards both sent opposition letter’s to Yee stating their arguments.

Both associations argue SB 1370 is too broad and can lead to additional litigation.

In its March 19 letter, the ACSA states, they have reviewed the bill and “must respectfully oppose” it, citing that “the bill protects all teachers under free speech and not just journalism teachers.”

The ACSB wrote in its opposition letter that the bill goes too far as it “prohibits disciplinary or ‘retaliatory’ measures against all employees, not limited to journalism teachers.”

In response to both associations opposition letters, Keigwin said, their arguments are “baseless” and “inaccurate.”

The ACSA also argues “teachers in the K-12 setting do not have academic freedom nor do minors have complete freedom of speech protections.”

Keigwin said K-12 students do not have “absolute speech protections” and “that is true and that is why the bill only protects a teacher when the incident involves speech that is currently protected by state law and the California or US Constitution.”

This statewide strategy of administrators “retaliating” against students and teachers for engaging in free speech rights is contributing to the steady decline of journalism programs in California public schools.In some instances when the seasoned journalism adviser was removed or reassigned, they were replaced with inexperienced personnel leading to fewer publication being published or the newspaper has almost been completely shut down.

Enrollment in Journalism has been steadily declining in California public schools since the late ’90s, although the overall student population has increased.

In 1997-98, more than 36,800 students were enrolled in 1,607 courses. In 2006-07, the number of students taking journalism courses had dropped to mare than 30,180. Meanwhile in the last decade, the overall student population has increased from 5.7 million to nearly 6.3 million.