H.S. editor fired over article

CALIFORNIA Troy High School officials wrongfully justified their firing of the editor of the student newspaper with a section of the state education code that requires parental permission before schools question students about their sex lives, according to a legal analyst for the California Department of Education.

School officials told the former Oracle editor, Ann Long, that she violated the law when she ran an article in December that featured testimonies from three student members of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance about their experiences revealing their homosexuality to their families and friends.

Because Long had failed to call the parents before running the article about the students—who were 15, 17 and 18—the administrators told her she was being punished.

In January, in a meeting with Long before her removal, Assistant Principal Joseph D’Amelia and newspaper adviser Georgette Cerutti claimed Long had violated Section 51513 of the California Education Code.

“No test, questionnaire, survey, or examination containing questions about the pupil’s personal beliefs or practices in sex, family life, morality, and religion shall be administered to any pupil in kindergarten or grades 1 to 12 unless the parent or guardian of the pupil is notified in writing,” Section 51513 reads.

At the meeting, Cerutti claimed she repeatedly told Long to speak with the parents of the students but Long had not and then had lied about it, according to Long. Long has denied Cerutti’s allegations, saying she was never told to call the parents, but had offered to call them after the article was written and apologize. Long said Cerutti told her that offer “wasn’t good enough.”

Long was removed from her position soon after the meeting.

Michael Hersher, the assistant general counsel for the legal division of the California Department of Education, said Section 51513 could not lawfully be used as justification for firing Long because interviewing a student for a student newspaper is completely different from administering a test, survey, questionnaire or examination.

“I would not construe an interview by a student reporter to require the kind of parental permission that’s required under Section 51513, particularly in light of the right of freedom of speech that’s guaranteed under Section 48907,” Hersher added.

Section 48907—a student free expression provision of the California Education Code—states, in part, “Students of the public schools shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press including the right of expression in official publications, whether or not such publications or other means of expression are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities, except that expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous. Also prohibited shall be material which so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of thecommission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

Mark Child, director of the Journalism Education Association’s Southern California chapter, said he is well-versed in California law, but is unaware of any part of the code requiring a student reporter to obtain a parent’s consent before interviewing another student for his or her article.

Tina Jung, an information officer for the state department of education, also said Section 51513 could not legally be used to fire Long.

On March 7, Long’s American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ranjana Natarajah wrote a letter to the Fullerton Joint Union High School District superintendent, George Giakaris, listing reasons the district was wrong to fire Long and urging the district to reinstate her and erase her removal from her permanent academic record.

Natarajah wrote, “State law prohibits schools from punishing students ‘solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside of the campus is protected from governmental restriction’ by the First Amendment [and] the California Education Code.”

Natarajah added that Long’s firing sent a message to the students and community that sexual orientation issues were not appropriate in the school context, a message that “is inconsistent with the school’s obligation to ensure that its students are free from discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.”

Elizabeth Brennan, ACLU’s media relations manager, said the school district’s attorney had contacted Natarajah but had not agreed to reinstate Long to her position. Brennan said Natarajah will continue to correspond with the attorney until they come to “an agreeable resolution.”

“Student journalists must be able to report responsibly on all issues that affect students without fear of retribution,” Brennan said.

Long said her sole intention for the article was to help the student body better understand the “emotional undercurrent” of their non-heterosexual classmates, and that she never expected her situation to go as far as it has.

In an editorial that was published in the April issue of the OC Family magazine, Long wrote, “Never has one event so utterly consumed my life and opened my eyes to the crushing reality of high school politics.”

“I can only hope the district will come to their senses and realize I’ve done nothing wrong,” Long said.

Read previous coverage:

California, Oracle, reports, Spring 2005, Troy High School