The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Bill to guard schools’ free speech rights

The California Senate passed a bill making it illegal for California high school and college administrators or school boards to “retaliate” against employees for defending students’ First Amendment free speech rights in a 35-2 vote on Monday.

Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) said he authored Senate Bill 1370, the “Journalism Teacher Protection Act,” after his office received several statewide reports of journalism advisers, teachers and professors being “removed” from their positions for refusing to comply with administrators’ demands to censor stories or stop critical coverage from publication in student newspapers.

“These administrators think they have (the students and schools) best interest at heart,” said Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo). “But (what) they don’t realize is they are taking away peoples’ freedom to express dissent as protected by the First Amendment and sending a message that it is OK to violate this right.”

SB 1370 follows 2006 amendments to the California Education Code, sections 48907, 48950 and 66301, which prohibit college and high school teachers, administrators and school boards on any public California campus from censoring press and disciplining students on the basis of their speech, and it offers a civil remedy if these rights are suspected of being violated. Yee also authored these amendments.

The law prohibits administrators and journalism advisers from exercising prior restraint and disciplining students for content unless it is “obscene, libelous, or slanderous,” if the publication “incites students as to create a clear and present danger,” or if it substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said, “Some administrators lean on advisers to do what they legally cannot. The administrators’ actions put the advisers in a situation to face Hobson’s choice.”

“For advisers, it is either violate students’ free speech rights or face action of insubordination or discipline for not complying with administrators’ demands,” Ewert said.

SB 1370 prohibits an employee from dismissal, suspension, discipline, reassignment, transfer, or retaliation for acting to protect a student’s speech, and it also offers a civil remedy if employees suspect their rights were violated.

Two journalism advisors expressed their happiness after the Senate approved the bill. Both suspected that they were removed from their teaching positions for critical newspaper content that was published in the student newspapers.

Jan Ewell, former journalism adviser to the Rancho Alamitos High School newspaper, La Nueva Voz, said she was relived from her post from 2006.

Ewell said, “I am extremely happy and encouraged the bill will pass.”

Ellen Kersey, former adviser to the Adolfo Camarillo High School newspaper, The Stinger, said, “I’m not sure of all the aspects of the bill, but if it protects journalism advisers, that is great.”

Kersey said she was relieved from her position in 2001.

The Association of California Schools Administrators and the Association of California School Boards maintain that SB 1370 is “too broad” and can cause “additional litigation” because there have been “numerous situations whereby a teacher has used poor judgment under the guise of student freedom of speech.” This bill could “lead to teachers using freedom of speech to get out of discipline, transfer, or other reprimands,” the associations maintain.

But SB1370 sweeps numerous endorsements from major newspaper organizations and associations, a press release on Yee’s Web site shows.

The CNPA, California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers, California School Employees Association, California State Student Association, Associated Students of the University of California (Davis), California State University Employees Union/SEIU 2579, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, California Nurses Association and the California Labor Federation are some of the organizations and associations who support the bill.

The Assembly must approve SB 1370 before heading to the governor’s office for his signature or veto. The Assembly is expected to vote on the bill in a couple of months, Keigwin said.

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