A happier new year for press freedom in California schools – no matter what kind

You have to salute the ingenuity, if not the integrity, of school and college administrators bent on smothering the voices of dissent. Like water flowing downhill, the force of nature that is censorship invariably finds the tiniest crack or crevice in even seemingly impermeable laws.

In 2006, California legislators fortified the protection of student journalists’ rights after a federal appeals-court ruling in Illinois cast doubt on the extent of press freedom at public colleges and universities.

“A-ha,” the censors quickly recognized. “It’s illegal only if we retaliate against students.” So they retaliated against journalism advisers. Again, and again, and again.

To the rescue came the First Amendment’s firefighter, California Sen. Leland Yee, with a hole-plugger enacted in 2008 to make it illegal to fire, demote, transfer or otherwise penalize a teacher for what her students say or write.

“A-ha,” said the censors. “These laws are about public schools. But charter schools are only quasi-public.”

And so Orange County High School of the Arts declared that freedom of speech is just one more bureaucratic annoyance from which charter schools are exempt — and defiantly fired respected adviser Konnie Krislock in response to her students’ uncomfortably aggressive journalism. It makes you wonder what type of civics books they use in Principal School, when fundamental individual liberties can be sniffed at as “red tape,” but that was the school’s straight-faced contention.

Into the breach once more, Senator Yee. His Senate Bill 438 takes effect today, January 1, and eliminates any ambiguity by expressly including charter schools within the coverage of California’s best-in-the-nation laws protecting students — and teachers — against retaliation for lawful student expression.

Under California’s Student Free Expression Law, Education Code Section 49807, as amended by SB 438, it’s now unmistakably illegal for administrators at a charter school to (1) restrain the distribution of student-prepared material unless its content fits within narrow exceptions (e.g., it is obscene, it threatens violence, or it will provoke an imminent and substantial disruption of school), or (2) dismiss, suspend, discipline, reassign or otherwise punish a school employee for protecting — or refusing to censor — a student engaging in legally protected expression.

It’s unfortunate that Sen. Yee’s bill was necessary — and that it didn’t come soon enough for Konnie Krislock. And it’s doubly unfortunate that administrators in schools across California undoubtedly are already poking at SB 438 to locate the next loophole.