PRESS RELEASE: Student Press Law Center Hails California’s New Journalism Teacher Protection Act

Contact: Frank LoMonteExecutive

The Student Press Law Center today congratulated California Gov. ArnoldSchwarzenegger for signing one of the nation’s toughest and mostforward-looking laws protecting teachers against unfair retaliation when theystand up for their students’ First Amendment rights.

“While this law makes the workplace safer for teachers, the realbeneficiaries are California’s students, who no longer must fear thathonest reporting on school events will get their favorite teacher fired,”SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said. “Governor Schwarzeneggerand the California legislature should be commended for sending a message toschool officials — in California and across the nation — thatteachers are not to be used as pawns to intimidate kids into avoiding legitimatetopics of discussion.”

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofitwhose mission is to advocate for free-press rights for high school and collegejournalists nationwide. The Center provides legal information and referralassistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.

California’s new law provides that no public school or collegeemployee may be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, orotherwise retaliated against solely for acting to protect a student who isengaged in legally protected conduct. This includes the publication of speechthat is not obscene, libelous, slanderous or substantially disruptive to thesafe operations of the school.

Kansas is the only other state with express anti-retaliationlaws protecting teachers who advise student publications. The California law iseven broader, because it applies to all modes oflawful student speech, not just publications.

“Teachers losing their jobs for refusing to censor theirstudents’ news reporting is a real and pervasive problem, and it is goingon all too commonly in America’s schools,” LoMonte said.

Just last year, SPLC volunteer attorneys secured a favorable settlement forthe journalism adviser at Ocean County College in New Jersey, who had beenforced from her position after the student newspaper ran a number of articlescritical of the college administration. Adviser Karen Bosley was reinstated asa journalism teacher and given a $90,000 settlement. “It is sadly commonfor schools to resort to indirect forms of censorship because they have figuredout that the Constitution will not allow them to directly censor content justbecause it ‘makes the school look bad.’ This indirect censorshiptakes many forms — squeezing a newspaper’s budget, moving the staffinto undesirable office space — but the most insidious is damaging aneducator’s career just to send a warning to the students,” LoMontesaid.

LoMonte pointed out that, even in states that lack explicit statutoryprotection for teachers, there are avenues to challenge the unfair removal ofjournalism advisers. “Students can bring, and have brought, FirstAmendment claims on their own behalf, because punishing the adviser wrongfullydeters and intimidates the students from exercising their rights. TheCalifornia law clarifies and strengthens existing protections, and removes anydoubt that administrators cannot censor indirectly by holding theteacher’s job security hostage.”

In a separate and important provision, Senate Bill 1370 clarifies thatstudents do not lose their right to bring legal action to challenge unlawfulcensorship or retaliation when they graduate. “This provision isimportant to keep legal action as a meaningful deterrent to censorship,”LoMonte said, noting that at least one federal court of appeals (the TenthCircuit) has held that students’ censorship claims can be mooted if theygraduate while litigation is pending, even during the appeal process, which cantypically take several years. “Senate Bill 1370 makes clear that schoolscannot censor with impunity simply by ‘running out the clock’ onstudent litigants.”

The Center gave special thanks to the sponsor of Senate Bill 1370, Sen.Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), a longtime advocate for the freeexpression rights of young people. While a member of the California Assembly,Sen. Yee secured passage of a 2006 law declaring that public colleges anduniversities cannot discipline students for speech protected by the FirstAmendment.

“Senator Yee is a champion for student voices, and he deservesspecial recognition and thanks for his tireless work in shepherding Senate Bill1370 over tough opposition,” LoMonte said. “Students don’thave high-priced lobbyists or campaign PACs, but in California they havesomething better — Senator Leland Yee.”

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