ACLU claims Calif. district allowed “prolonged, coercive interrogations” of student journalists

The Davis Joint Unified School District in California is facing criticism after two high school journalists were pulled out of class and questioned by police.

Alana de Hinojosa, editor in chief of The HUB newspaper at Davis High School, wrote an article last spring exploring the artistic value and criminal implications of graffiti. Two weeks later, she and a fellow student who made a separate documentary on graffiti were questioned by police, and the ACLU of Northern California is objecting to what it calls “prolonged, coercive interrogations.”

ACLU of Northern California attorney Linda Lye sent a letter Aug. 16 to Superintendent Wilfred B. Robertson Jr., that chastised the actions of the schools involved and suggested ways to prevent future problems.

The letter alleged de Hinojosa was questioned on May 12 by a police officer and school staff “in an effort to pressure her into revealing the identities of the two graffiti artists discussed in her article.” The same day, the second unnamed student was pulled from his Advanced Placement Calculus class at Da Vinci Charter School and also, according to the ACLU, pressured by police and school staff to reveal his sources.

The letter said the students were not suspected of wrongdoing and “questioned because of their participation in activities protected by the First Amendment and California Constitution.” Both had their cell phones confiscated and were not given the opportunity to contact an attorney or their parents, nor were they informed of their rights to leave the room, according to the ACLU.

The letter goes on to outline various ways the school district could secure more rights to students, including training school staff regarding students’ rights and requiring parental consent before students are interrogated by police.

In a phone interview Sept. 2, Superintendent Robertson said his staff is not advised to tell students of their rights when speaking to law enforcement.

“We would hope our parents, and we have a well-educated parent community, we hope they are informing children of their rights,” Robertson said. “No student is ever forced to speak with law enforcement. I think our high school students are aware, and I’ll say the majority of high school students are aware of their rights when it comes to police questioning.”

People who are being interrogated by law enforcement under conditions where they are in custody and unable to freely leave are entitled to be read their constitutional rights, including the right to have an attorney present. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court decided in the case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina that, when a student is interrogated at school by police, the student’s age should be taken into account in deciding whether the student could understand that he or she was free to leave.

California courts have held that even unpaid student journalists working on assignments for class can take advantage of the protection of the reporter’s privilege. The reporter’s privilege excuses journalists from complying with demands to disclose confidential sources and unpublished information.

Robertson said he wants to move from the incidents with the two students to focus “on our steps to make sure my staff understands their role and responsibility when it comes to students and to law enforcement.”

In a phone interview Aug. 30, attorney Lye said the parental notification issue has been a sticking point in informal discussions with the district.

“The concern that [Robertson] articulated to me is that the school district lacks authority to require that, so I was trying to offer him creative ways by which the school district could negotiate with the Davis Police Department,” Lye said.

Robertson said the school district complies with law enforcement.

“We don’t have the authority to interfere with the police doing their business,” he said. “There are times when we can contact parents and there are times we cannot. The situation dictates our response. But it is our board policy to notify parents as soon as possible if their student does have contact with law enforcement.”

He added that if a student is questioned by police, “an administrator will ask the student if he or she wants an administrator to remain present during the questioning.”

Lye is “cautiously optimistic” about what policies can result from their discussions and said it is an opportunity for Davis to be a leader in guaranteeing the rights of students.

“There’s no concrete development,” Lye said. “We had what I consider to be productive discussions, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the district is willing to do in concrete terms.”