SPLC Case File: High school journalists fight back against censorship and adviser's suspension





San Gabriel High School (2015)

San Gabriel, California

High school journalists' article about a teacher's dismissal was censored, which sparked a firestorm of controversy as the student journalists fought back, despite their adviser's suspension and other intimidation tactics by the school district.  

“After The Matador attempted to report that a popular English teacher and speech and debate coach would not be returning to the classroom the following school year, we were told by our principal that we were being prohibited from reporting the circumstances surrounding the teacher's dismissal and ordered to instead publish a features piece that would undergo prior review. The SPLC graciously helped us through the resulting firestorm of controversy. Members of the SPLC provided us with superb consultation and helped us circumvent our school district's writ of censorship. They were very articulate in our phone conferences and even more so when they helped us draft letters to our school district warning of potential legal action if the censorship continued. With the guidance of the SPLC, my fellow student journalists and I learned about what protections we had as student journalists and what we could and could not do to fight administrative overreach. As student journalists in a public high school, we are often left in the dark as to what protections we are guaranteed under law, and we are often afraid to use what little we do know about our protections because of our status as students. Fortunately, the SPLC helped us find innumerable resources that helped us learn and invoke protections against violations of the freedom of speech like the ones we experienced.”

— Simon Yung, former copy editor of The Matador

The Trigger

In May 2015, high school journalists at The Matador tried to write an article covering the dismissal of a popular San Gabriel High School teacher, Andrew Nguyen. The reporters tried to interview the school’s then-principal Jim Schofield, who refused to answer questions due to the “privacy of the issue,” though he was alerted that Nguyen had given permission for the article to be written. Schofield then asked to pre-approve the article and told the staff they were only allowed to write a positive feature of Nguyen without mentioning the dismissal.

The frustrated reporters attempted to air their grievances at an Alhambra Unified School District school board meeting in June, arguing the censorship was a violation of California Education Code 48907, also referred to as the California Student Free Expression Law.

The School’s Reaction

The school board investigated the censorship of the Matador, but found that Schofield had not purposely censored the paper and he was allowed to keep his promotion to a district-level position. Critics have said the investigation was flawed and inadequate.

A few months later, Jennifer Kim, the student media adviser, was placed on administrative leave for an unspecified dispute with the new principal, Debbie Stone, at a student-run yearbook camp. She was replaced by two substitutes for the fall semester. School officials also abruptly shut down the newspaper’s website, which resulted in the paper losing a year's worth of its archives, and replaced it with a website on the school district’s servers.

Fighting Back

The student reporters of The Matador consistently attended school board meetings to protest the censorship of their publication. Several current and past students began speaking at the meetings, begging for increased transparency. Some of the students dressed in costume — like “Transparency Man” in a suit of bubble wrap or as a knight wearing “Armor of Truth.”

In response to Kim being placed on administrative leave, students and alumni filed a complaint to the district that the two replacements were completely unqualified. The students continued to demand answers for the article’s censorship and for the reinstatement of their advisor. Some students and alumni maintain a blog, Defy Silence Under Alliance, to protest the administration’s actions.

End Result

The district ultimately reinstated advisor Jennifer Kim at the end of the fall term with a written reprimand. The Matador is still grappling with the loss of a year’s worth of archived stories and adjusting to their new website on district servers, where students don’t have control over the layout, design or structure of the website.

In November 2015, the student journalists were presented with the 2015 Courage in Student Journalism Award by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association for their fight against censorship in the face of adversity by administrators.

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case files, high school journalism, San Gabriel High School, The Matador