Adviser protection bill clears Assembly, draws fire from U of Calif.

CALIFORNIA — After a bill to protect high school and college journalism advisers won overwhelming approval in the state Assembly, theUniversity of California Board of Regents said in a letter it likely will notadopt the bill’s provisions.

The Assembly amended Senate Bill 1370, stripping it of the moniker”Journalism Teachers’ Protection Act” and making clear that the protectionsextend to all teachers, not just journalism advisers. The bill makes it illegalto retaliate against teachers for protecting students engaged in free speech orexpression. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo),passed the Assembly by a 67-6 vote on June 16. It now is back in the Senate fora concurrence vote and possible amendments.

UC says one of the existing laws the bill would amend if enacted, EducationCode Section 66301, already affords substantial protections to students, facultyand staff at public colleges and universities. Happy Chastain, seniorlegislative director for state government relations in the UC president’soffice, wrote in a letter to Yee that the new law could disrupt the academicenvironment and would restrict the university’s ability to discipline facultymembers who do not keep up with instructional standards.

“Under the provisions of SB 1370, UC is concerned that its ability to actin such circumstances would be restricted and expose the University to frivolousand unwarranted litigation,” Chastain wrote, giving a hypothetical example inwhich a teacher allows a student to voice off-topic opinions during class.

Mark Goodman, the Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent StateUniversity, said he is not sure why the university thinks the speech in thegiven hypothetical would be protected.

“The letter cites as a hypothetical example a math instructor who allowed astudent to promote opinions unrelated to the subject during class time,suggesting that under the law, the university would be prohibited from punishingthe teacher for tolerating the disruptive student speech,” Goodman, a formerexecutive director of the Student Press Law Center, wrote on the Center forScholastic Journalism’s blog. “Of course, the letter never explains why theUniversity believes that off-topic student speech in the classroom would beprotected by the law in the first place, a requirement for the universityemployee protections of the bill to come into play.”

Adam Keigwin, Yee’s communications director, said this hypothetical wouldbe “almost irrelevant” because the teacher could be disciplined for not teachingthe curriculum, and went on to say that the student’s speech in the examplewould probably be seen as unprotected speech.

“A court would have to make that determination, but I would suspect itwouldn’t be protected speech because it would be disturbing the learningenvironment,” Keigwin said.

Now, Yee is in negotiations with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is amember of the board of regents, to add language to the bill clarifying that theamendment could not be used to help teachers who simply are not doing theirjobs. Keigwin said the bill is not meant to protect bad teachers or to interferewith curriculum and that administrators do need a way to get rid of thoseteachers.

A part of the California Education Code adopted in the 1990s requires thatthe UC Board of Regents pass a resolution formally adopting any changes of tocode. Keigwin said Yee fully expects UC to comply with the bill but that thesenator is focused on getting the bill passed and signed by the governor andwill have a conversation with the regents about adopting the bill afterthat.

SB 1370 is a follow-up to a 2006 bill, AB 2581, which protects studentspeech at public colleges and universities from censorship based on its contentand bars administrators from exercising prior restraint of student publications.Similar state laws protect high school students. In response, manyadministrators began punishing advisers for student speech the administratorsobjected to, Yee’s office said. There are several cases in the state in whichadvisers were either removed from the position or fired, a dozen of which havebeen reported to Yee’s office since the bill was introduced to the Senate inFebruary.

Another amendment to SB 1370 made in the Assembly would allow students whobelieve their free-speech rights were violated to begin or continue lawsuitsagainst their schools even after graduating. Existing laws allow only currentlyenrolled students to bring such suits.

The bill is expected to clear a concurrence vote in the Senate next weekbefore going to Schwarzenegger’s desk for approval or veto.

The state Assembly sent another bill sponsored by Yee to the governor’sdesk Monday after a unanimous vote. The legislation prevents government agenciesfrom entering contracts with private parties that prevent them from disclosinginformation subject to the state’s Public Records Act.

The bill, Senate Bill 1696 is a response to a contract between the University of Californiaat San Francisco and a private auditing firm that prohibited the school fromfulfilling a January 2007 open-records request from the San FranciscoChronicle. The contract required consent from the firm before the requestedinformation could be released.

“The public deserves to see how their tax dollars are being spent andshould not be prevented access to contracts, audits, reviews or reports ofgovernment agencies,” Yee said in a written statement. “Simply entering into aconfidentiality agreement with a third party will no longer be an excuse to notdisclose information and avoid scrutiny and accountability.