Calif. student editors fear censorship after covering reports of teacher-student altercation

CALIFORNIA — The story broke on Twitter: a physical altercation between a teacher and a student.

Staffers at The Californian, the student newspaper at San Ramon’s California High School, were quick to jump on the reports and published a story in late November. Now, editors are worried school officials might begin censoring them.

The paper’s story documented eyewitness accounts of the incident, but the article named neither the student nor the teacher, who had been removed from the classroom, the article said.

After the story was published, Principal Mark Corti emailed the newspaper’s adviser to share concerns he had about the article, including his belief that “the article should have been delayed or not published,” according to an editorial published last week in The Californian. Corti cited safety issues, confidentiality and an ongoing investigation. Corti also highlighted a school board policy that allows administrators to restrict student speech when it threatens the rights, health and safety of other people in the school.

“Although district and school administrators have not censored The Californian, the district is acting in a heavy-handed fashion by attempting to lean on the rights of student journalists to prevent the paper from publishing controversial stories that place Cal High and the district in a bad light,” the editorial says.

The editorial also detailed student editors’ concerns that the board policy is not compliant with California’s Student Free Expression law. The law prevents the restriction of students’ free speech unless it is “obscene, libelous or slanderous,” or if it is “material that so incites pupils to create a clear and present danger” or a “substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

The San Ramon Valley Unified School District’s policy allows administrators to censor material beyond what is set forth in the state’s Free Expression law. Under the board’s policy, which was approved in 1995, administrators can censor material that is “inappropriate to the maturity level of the student,” or if it invades the privacy of an individual.

The paper plans to do a follow-up story that addresses teacher disciplinary procedures at the school, and the possibility of censorship alone is enough to concern co-Editor-in-Chief Ashton DeLano and his colleagues, said DeLano, a senior who authored the editorial.

Corti doesn’t typically review the paper before publication, but when the paper plans to run content they think he should be aware of, adviser Brian Barr said he usually gives Corti a heads-up.

There have been additional conversations with Corti about the paper’s continued coverage of the alleged altercation, according to the paper’s adviser and the editorial. Corti again suggested that coverage either be “delayed or simply not published,” the paper reported.

“The way we see it, they’re sort of posturing,” DeLano said in an interview. “They’re preparing for sort of what they have as evidence of us disobeying them.”

Barr said he thinks that there’s an inconsistency between state law and board policy, but that the paper was within its rights under the law.

“How is this a safety issue?” he said. “It didn’t endanger anyone.”

Jim Ewert, general counsel with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, dismissed all three of Principal Corti’s arguments. The paper in no way broke California state law, and state law always trumps school board policy, he said.

The student newspaper didn’t reveal the names of the alleged parties, so there isn’t a possibility of confidentiality issues, he said. Furthermore, censorship can only be enacted when the “disruption” is substantial.

“This isn’t where people can’t be offended or upset,” Ewert said. “There has to be a non-speculative threat to the security of the school. Newspapers, at times, report facts people have strong reactions to, and this is precisely what their job is.”

Corti said he was simply following board policy when he emailed The Californian’s adviser.

When asked if he thought board policy supersedes state law, Corti said, “Boy, you’re putting me in a good spot here. … I have to eventually base it on what’s best for the students.”

Corti would not specify whether he would consider censoring the paper’s related content in the future.

“First of all, I don’t like the word,” he said. “I have to make a decision in certain areas to make sure I’m protecting everybody.”

Corti said that in the future, if he has a concern about content in the paper, he would try to have a conversation with the paper’s staff about the impact of their coverage.

“I would work with them to try to help them if I felt that a line was being crossed,” he said. “I would just want to help them understand it.”

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.