Student voices find sympathetic ear


Calif. lawmaker has been driving force for free-speech protections





Sen. Leland Yee was one of about 3,000 protesters in the 1960s who defended a little park on the urban Berkeley campus. The park was owned by the University of California and administrators intended to replace it with a new dormitory.

Although the park suffered temporary damage after being ripped up to begin construction, it was eventually rebuilt ‘ complete with trees, flowers and sod ‘and is now called The People’s Park.

Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) said his passion for defending student journalists’ rights stems from his passion for redressing what he and other students felt were wrongs of the Berkeley administrators.

“I was not a journalist, but I was a protester,” he said.

His days as a protester ‘ and the fact that he emigrated with his family from China when he was three and had to fight for his citizenship ‘ give him a unique view of the First Amendment, Yee said.

“As an immigrant, when you come to this country, you begin to appreciate this country a lot more because the citizenship you have is not given to you,” Yee said. “You earn it. You kind of seek it out.”

The First Amendment’s protections are incredibly important and set this country apart from others, he said.

The senator went to public school in San Francisco, attended Berkeley for his undergraduate degree, San Francisco State University for his master’s degree and eventually received a Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Hawaii.

As a longtime student, and someone who continued working with children afterward, Yee said he became passionate about educating younger generations and preserving their rights. The best way to preserve the First Amendment is to make sure students understand and appreciate it, he said.

Yee was elected to the California State Assembly six years ago with 78 percent of the vote ‘ the largest percentage for any Democratic candidate with a Republican opponent that year, according to records from the California Secretary of State. He was the first Asian/Pacific American to be appointed speaker pro tempore ‘ the second-highest position in the Assembly. In 2006, he became the first Chinese American elected to the state Senate. Yee helped transform California student journalism with laws that specifically protect the free-speech rights of high school and college students.

Because of his reputation, lobbyists and free-speech defenders all over the state approach Yee first when there is a student journalism issue they feel the legislature should address.

“He has such a strong commitment to advancing and protecting student speech,” said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, who often works with Yee on First Amendment issues. “He’s quite effective and highly respected among his colleagues. He truly understands the need for continuing to protect student speech.”

Sen. Jack Scott (D-Pasadena), who is chairman of the Senate education committee, said he has been impressed with Yee since he came to the Senate.

“I’ve found him to be knowledgeable and, on the other hand, willing to listen to the possibility of amendments to a bill that he’s authoring,” Scott said. Yee is hard-working and held in esteem by his colleagues, which helps them recognize the merits of his bills, Scott said.

While working on a current bill that would prevent administrators from retaliating against teachers who protect student speech, Yee ran into opposition from the University of California, which argued the bill would make it difficult to discipline teachers who were not properly doing their jobs. Yee agreed to amend the bill so it would protect teachers “solely for acting to protect a pupil engaged in conduct authorized by a specified provision of state law or refusing to infringe upon conduct that is protected pursuant to state law or those constitutional provisions.”

The Association of California School Administrators worked with Yee to make that change.

Laura Preston, a lobbyist for ACSA, has worked with Yee for many years ‘ going back to when he was on the San Francisco school board, where he spent eight years. Preston said she would rank Yee in the top 25 percent of legislators she works with.“He’s terrific; he’s very open,” she said. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but one of the things I look for when working with a legislator is that they will tell me if they are with me or not.”

Yee has always been very up-front about his position when working on a bill, she said. Preston and Yee often find themselves on opposite sides of legislation, but have maintained a friendly professional relationship over the years. It is important for legislators to avoid getting personally attached to a bill by becoming emotionally involved, Preston said.

“He does know his stuff ‘ he does his homework ‘ and when you don’t agree, he doesn’t hold that against you,” Preston said.

But Yee does get deeply invested in his legislation.

Already a free speech advocate, Yee’s student journalism involvement began after a 2005 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hosty v. Carter, which said college student publications that are not designated as public forums can be controlled by the administration, much like high school publications.

That decision applies only in the states covered by the 7th Circuit ‘ Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin ‘ and the California Education Code already protected high school students from administrative control and censorship. But colleges were not included in that language. CNPA and several other organizations tapped Yee, then an assemblyman, to sponsor Assembly Bill 2581, which amended the code to extend the extra protection to college and university students. The bill, introduced in 2006, went into effect in January 2007.

“[A.B. 2581] brought everything out into the open and said that in California, we don’t allow censorship,” said Rich Cameron, chairman of the California Journalism Education Coalition, which has recognized Yee for his service to journalism.

The bill to protect teachers came this session after it became apparent that there was still a problem with censorship.

“We had a problem that the advisers were vulnerable,” Cameron said. “Administrators decided that if you couldn’t censor the students, you turn around and put pressure on the adviser to do the censoring.”

The legislature has been responsive to the bill, Yee said, and he believes most individuals in the legislature understand the importance of free speech and free expression.

“What was rather interesting and gratifying for me, despite the fact that I am a Democrat, there was quite a bit of Republican support for these bills,” Yee said. “The First Amendment is not a liberal or conservative issue.”

Yee said that he would be prepared to support conservative speech even if it exposed a viewpoint he did not agree with, and this is a lesson school administrators need to learn. Yee said it strikes him as odd that school administrators who teach the First Amendment and tell students they should appreciate it tend to have a low threshold for speech they are willing to accept and protect. He said these administrators have the attitude that, in an instructional environment, it is OK for teachers and administrators to violate the First Amendment in order to teach the difference between good and bad.

“You don’t set up bad examples,” he said. “You don’t trash the First Amendment in the course of trying to help teach a certain lesson. That’s like a parent trying to teach their children how to be good by committing a crime.”


Fall 2008, reports