PRESS RELEASE: SPLC, FIRE ask LACC Board of Trustees to investigate treatment of student newspaper

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), the nation’s onlynonprofit legal-assistance organization serving student journalists, is askingthe Board of Trustees of Los Angeles City College in California to look into apattern of threats to the editorial freedom of the award-winning studentnewspaper, the Collegian.

The letter of concern cites several instances in which theCollegian and its staff faced intimidation or retaliation for the contentof their journalistic work, including a proposed transfer under which authorityfor the newspaper would be shifted to a new department, in an apparent attemptto exert greater administrative control over the newspaper’s editorialcontent.

The SPLC was joined in its January 15 letter by the Foundation forIndividual Rights in Education, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group supportingfreedom of speech on college campuses.

State Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, California’sleading champion of student First Amendment rights, has called for an inquiryinto possible violations of student journalists’ rights, but PresidentJamillah Moore has insisted that no violations occurred.

“LACC has damaged its own credibility with its stunning inability tofind a First Amendment violation in a climate where such violations seem tohappen as a matter of course. Finding a First Amendment violation at LACC islike looking for a needle in a needle stack,” says the January 15 letter,directed to LACC Board of Trustees President Mona Field.

“It is beyond dispute that at a public college — especially acollege in California, which has the strongest student free-speech laws inAmerica — the student editors of a campus publication have the freedom topublish anything that is lawful, and to do so free from fear of reprisal,”said Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney and executive director of the Student PressLaw Center. “Unfortunately, L.A. City College has cultivated a climate inwhich student journalists fear that tough, honest journalism will be met withretaliation against them and their newspaper.”

“We hope that the Board of Trustees will reinforce to theadministration of LACC that an award-winning newspaper is something to becelebrated, and that the newspaper’s editorial freedom is a vital part ofits educational value,” LoMonte said, noting that Collegian staffwriter Mars Melincoff won third-place nationally in the 2009 AssociatedCollegiate Press competition for “sports story of the year” –the only two-year college student recognized in that category — for herinvestigation of academic irregularities in LACC’s basketballprogram.

The letter highlights several examples of apparent violations of free-pressrights on campus, including:

President Moore’s demand that a student journalist covering an open,public meeting sign a “waiver” as a condition of being allowed toreport on the events of the meeting.A letter of reprimand issued to an LACCemployee rebuking him for providing the Collegian with a copy of a publicrecord that documented a (later-rescinded) 40 percent budget cut to thenewspaper. (The letter of reprimand was withdrawn when it was shown that theemployee was not the source of the document, but LACC has never acknowledgedthat it is improper to discipline employees for granting lawful requests forpublic records.)

Students in two-year public colleges in California are protected not onlyby the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but by California Education CodeSection 76120, which provides that two-year colleges may not prohibit or punishspeech unless it is libelous, obscene, or creates a “clear and presentdanger” of inciting its audience to break the law or otherwise disrupt theoperations of the campus.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educatinghigh school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilitiesembodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media incovering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides freeinformation and educational materials for student journalists and their teacherson a wide variety of legal topics.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT:Frank D. LoMonte, Esq.Adam Goldstein, Esq.. Student PressLaw Center (703) 807-1904