Calif. charter school claims exemption from state's Student Free Expression Law

CALIFORNIA — The controversy over prior review at theOrange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) has sparked debate over whethercharter schools should be exempt from the California Student Free Express Law, asection of the California Education Code that affords students the right tofreedom of the press.

Dr. Ralph Opacic, president and executive director of OCHSA, released apublic response Sept. 15 stating OCHSA does not have to follow Section 48907 ofCalifornia’s education code. The response came after Principal SueVaughn and Vice Principal Michael Ciecek withdrew their previously institutedrequirement of prior review for each issue of the paper, Evolution, onTuesday.

“State law exempts charter schools from the education code withlimited exceptions pursuant to Education Code Section 47610, also known as thecharter school mega-waiver,” Opacic said. “Based on that EducationCode section, it is clear that 48907 does not apply to charterschools.”

Adam Keigwin, chief of staff for California State Senator Leland Yee, saidcharter schools should not be exempt from Section 48907 because they receivegovernment funding and are not different from public schools in terms of theirresponsibilities toward students. If Opacic, Vaughn and Ciecek are proactive inclaiming exemption from the code by prior reviewing and trying to alter articlesin future issues of Evolution, Senator Yee is prepared to introduce abill clarifying that Section 48907 does indeed apply to charter schools.

Opacic also said OCHSA’s policy has always been to review studentpublications prior to print “to ensure they adhere to professionaljournalistic standards, including proofing for grammar, style, and factualaccuracy,” according to the Orange County Register. He saidthat was why the first issue of the paper was initially delayed a week.

Evolution‘s adviser, Konnie Krislock, disagrees with priorreview but empathizes with the administration’s intentions. “Theschool is extremely important to them and what they want to accomplish withthese special students,” she said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidwhile the charter school mega-waiver does not explicitly state that charterschools are not exempt from Section 48907, there is a difference between”laws governing school districts” (as stated in Section 47610) andstudents’ right to free expression.

“The whole concept of a charter school is to obtain freedom frombureaucratic red tape,” LoMonte said. “The California Student FreeExpression Law is a grant of rights to students — it is not bureaucraticred tape. It’s different, [for example], from dictating the way the schoolbuys cafeteria trays.”

The administrators and adviser originally disagreed about what constitutedcensorship when the first issue of Evolution was halted from printingSept. 10 because of alleged errors and relevance issues. Keiguin said should asimilar situation occur in the future, Yee will go to his legislative counseland request an official opinion from them. If the counsel determines charterschools absolutely must adhere to Section 48907, then the case is closed andOCHSA administrators must follow the rules of the code. If the counsel is unsureor says the code is ambiguous, Yee will introduce the bill in January.

“This is journalism, and sometimes journalism is critical whennecessary,” Keigwin said. “We believe they must follow thisparticular law. They should be teaching about democracy and free speech and therole of journalism in our society. Allowing an administrator to controlone’s speech is contrary to that.”

For More Information:

  • Calif. principal removes newspaper’s prior review requirement News Flash, 9/16/2009