CALIFORNIA — Troy High School officials wrongfullyjustified their firing of the editor of the student newspaper with a section ofthe state education code that requires parental permission before schoolsquestion students about their sex lives, according to a legal analyst for theCalifornia Department of Education.
School officials told the formerOracle editor, Ann Long, that she violated the law when she ran anarticle in December that featured testimonies from three student members of theschool’s Gay Straight Alliance about their experiences revealing theirhomosexuality to their families and friends.
Because Long had failed to callthe parents before running the article about the students—who were 15, 17and 18—the administrators told her she was being punished.
In January,in a meeting with Long before her removal, Assistant Principal JosephD’Amelia and newspaper adviser Georgette Cerutti claimed Long had violatedSection 51513 of the California Education Code.
“No test,questionnaire, survey, or examination containing questions about thepupil’s personal beliefs or practices in sex, family life, morality, andreligion shall be administered to any pupil in kindergarten or grades 1 to 12unless the parent or guardian of the pupil is notified in writing,”Section 51513 reads.
At the meeting, Cerutti claimed she repeatedly told Longto speak with the parents of the students but Long had not and then had liedabout it, according to Long. Long has denied Cerutti’s allegations, sayingshe was never told to call the parents, but had offered to call them after thearticle was written and apologize. Long said Cerutti told her that offer“wasn’t good enough.”
Long was removed from her positionsoon after the meeting.
Michael Hersher, the assistant general counsel forthe legal division of the California Department of Education, said Section 51513could not lawfully be used as justification for firing Long because interviewinga student for a student newspaper is completely different from administering atest, survey, questionnaire or examination.
“I would not construe aninterview by a student reporter to require the kind of parental permissionthat’s required under Section 51513, particularly in light of the right offreedom of speech that’s guaranteed under Section 48907,” Hersheradded.
Section 48907—a student free expression provision of theCalifornia Education Code—states, in part, “Students of the publicschools shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the pressincluding the right of expression in official publications, whether or not suchpublications or other means of expression are supported financially by theschool or by use of school facilities, except that expression shall beprohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous. Also prohibited shall bematerial which so incites students as to create a clear and present danger ofthecommission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawfulschool regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation ofthe school.”
Mark Child, director of the Journalism EducationAssociation’s Southern California chapter, said he is well-versed inCalifornia law, but is unaware of any part of the code requiring a studentreporter to obtain a parent’s consent before interviewing another studentfor his or her article.
Tina Jung, an information officer for the statedepartment of education, also said Section 51513 could not legally be used tofire Long.
On March 7, Long’s American Civil Liberties Union attorneyRanjana Natarajah wrote a letter to the Fullerton Joint Union High SchoolDistrict superintendent, George Giakaris, listing reasons the district was wrongto fire Long and urging the district to reinstate her and erase her removal fromher permanent academic record.
Natarajah wrote, “State law prohibitsschools from punishing students ‘solely on the basis of conduct that isspeech or other communication that, when engaged in outside of the campus isprotected from governmental restriction’ by the First Amendment [and] theCalifornia Education Code.”
Natarajah added that Long’s firingsent a message to the students and community that sexual orientation issues werenot appropriate in the school context, a message that “is inconsistentwith the school’s obligation to ensure that its students are free fromdiscrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived sexualorientation.”
Elizabeth Brennan, ACLU’s media relations manager,said the school district’s attorney had contacted Natarajah but had notagreed to reinstate Long to her position. Brennan said Natarajah will continueto correspond with the attorney until they come to “an agreeableresolution.”
“Student journalists must be able to reportresponsibly on all issues that affect students without fear ofretribution,” Brennan said.
Long said her sole intention for thearticle was to help the student body better understand the “emotionalundercurrent” of their non-heterosexual classmates, and that she neverexpected her situation to go as far as it has.
In an editorial that waspublished 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 thecrushing reality of high school politics.”
“I can only hope thedistrict will come to their senses and realize I’ve done nothingwrong,” Long said.
Read previous coverage:
- High school editor fired for not asking permission to interview gay students News Flash, 2/8/2005