California eyes new free-speech protections in schools
A bill seeks to protect teacher advisers when student newspapers anger administrators.
Eleven-year teaching veteran Teri Hu was adviser to The Voice, the student newspaper of Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., when school administrators told her not to let it publish a story critical of school policies on teaching assistants. Two months after she refused, Ms. Hu became "former" adviser to The Voice.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Janet Ewell, a tenured teacher in Garden Grove, was enjoying the praise in her 2002 school evaluation until she came to the part about her performance as advisor to journalism students. "[The principal] let me know he didn't like three student editorials, one about school bathrooms, one about the cafeteria and one about teachers who are not available to help students," recalls Ms. Ewell. "Then he told me I wouldn't be advising them the next fall."
Scenarios like those above occurring in schools across California have prompted the state to take the national lead again in protecting free speech rights on campuses. Two years ago, the state was the first to pass a bill preventing college administrators from censoring student newspapers.
Now, legislation is moving forward to protect both high school and college faculty advisers from being punished by administrators for students' articles or editorials.
"It is quite disheartening to hear that after we specifically prohibited prior restraint … that many are engaging in this type of nefarious activity and even firing quality teachers because of content in student newspapers," says Sen. Leland Yee, author of a new bill that would prohibit an employee from being dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against for acting to protect student's free speech.
Pressure on teachers
The California Newspaper Publishers Association reports 12 cases over the past two years in which teachers were fired or reassigned because of something written by students.
The number of cases of coercion, pressure or other manipulation by administrators against student newspaper advisers is far higher, they say – and much more goes unreported.
"It is rampant in every area of this state," says Jim Ewert, a lawyer for CNPA, who logged many of the infractions while manning a student hotline and took his findings to Senator Yee.
Last week, the state legislature's bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Yee's bill. The Journalism Teacher Protection Act, as it is called, must head to the Senate floor and Assembly before reaching the governor's desk. But observers say the bill appears to be headed for a repeat of Yee's previous free-speech bill, which moved easily into law in 2006.
Still, the new measure is opposed by school administrators associations concerned about the potential for teachers to abuse the law to get out of disciplinary actions, transfers, or other reprimands.