Calif. advisers could get new shield

High school and college journalism advisers in California — with the help of Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) — could soon receive more protection against administrators who are irked by student newspaper content.

The state Senate on April 21 approved Yee’s SB 1370, which would “prohibit an employee from being dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for protecting student speech. The bill will now go to the House.

College students in California are already protected by a law Yee sponsored in 2006, AB 2581, which prohibits administrators from “subjecting a student to disciplinary sanction solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication” that would be protected by the state or federal constitutions outside of school. The bill would also prohibit its provisions from being construed to authorize any prior restraint of the student press.

Yee’s communications director, Adam Keigwin, said SB 1370 is a reaction to an increased number of instances in which administrators pressure, and in some cases retaliate against, advisers over student speech.

“We have had at least a dozen cases that we know about throughout the state where teachers have been retaliated against for some reason, so we see a huge need for this bill,” he said.

Laura W. Preston, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators, said ACSA is opposed to SB 1370 because it increases red tape.

“SB 1370 will add more layers to bureaucracy and create numerous problems within our collective bargaining agreements adding to an already burdensome bureaucracy that public education in California faces,” she said.

She also said she does not know if the bill will fix anything since California teachers are already able to argue against assignments they do not support.

Eight California teachers — seven of whom have been removed from their position as journalism advisers — have gone public with their stories of criticism for what they say is administrative retaliation against the student press.

Janet Ewell, who in 2005 was removed as journalism teacher and adviser for Rancho Alamitos High School, has been active in getting the teachers’ case studies together for SB 1370. Ewell said all previous administrators had praised her work in journalism, and because the principal had said he disapproved of staff editorials, she believes she was removed because of newspaper content. She is now teaching only English.

“All we can do is hope that [SB 1370] gets passed and that it might act as a small rudder that will turn the ship that is headed in a very odd direction right now,” Ewell said. “Education seems to be less and less concerned with creating people who can function in a democracy and more and more concerned about test scores.”

Becca Feeney was the journalism teacher and adviser of Claremont High School’s The Wolfpacket for nine years when she was removed in 2007. A letter from the principal said Feeney was “irresponsible, manipulative and negligent” in allowing certain articles to run.

“They’re saying it’s a personnel issue,” she said. “They’re denying that they removed me for this reason.”

Feeney, who now teaches only English, said her union representative told her she had no case to fight the removal because it is the principal’s job to assign advisers. She said when an adviser is removed because of newspaper content, the students feel they are to blame, and it causes them to second-guess themselves.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said his organization asked Yee to sponsor SB 1370.

“Since the administrators can’t [censor], they’re attempting to bully advisers into engaging in these behaviors,” he said. “[Administrators] have disciplined or removed advisers — often very experienced advisers — from newspapers and replaced them with folks who are either brand new teachers or have little or no journalism background.”

Ronnie Campagna had been the journalism teacher and adviser at San Marin High School for 18 years until the principal told her in 2003 that another teacher would be taking over the class. The personnel director had previously tried unsuccessfully to restrict the paper’s distribution on campus and three times tried to transfer Campagna to a middle school. She was eventually removed from her position in 2003. She now works at NOVA Independent Study, an alternative K-12 school.

“I needed to get out of there because I couldn’t stand teaching in a school where I wasn’t the journalism teacher,” Campagna said.

Of the seven states that have laws protecting student speech, Colorado and Kansas are the only two with provisions extending protection to journalism advisers. If passed, SB 1370 would be the first law enacted solely to protect journalism advisers.

Since it was enacted in 1977, California’s Student Free Expression Law has provided students of California public schools with more protection against censorship than federal courts have provided. But the law still prohibits expression that is “obscene, libelous, or slanderous.” Also prohibited is material that encourages the violation of lawful school regulations or creates a substantial disruption, or that which “incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises.”

reports, Spring 2008