SPLC tip sheet for student media advisers

Let Your Students Lead

At the beginning of each academic year, explain to your students the difficult position in which you, as adviser, operate. You are on their side, of course. But you — unlike the students themselves — are also a school employee. Let them know you support them, but that they must be willing and able to take the leadership role should it be necessary to challenge administrative action. It’s their publication. Courts have made clear that it is their legal rights — not the adviser’s — that are at stake. If a fight must be fought, it must be their fight (and ideally, one that parents, alumni  and other community members are willing to join). Also, from the beginning it should be made clear to school officials that their battle will be with students and their parents, not you.

Avoid Insubordination

Remember that the boss is still the boss. Allowing administrators to confuse the censorship issue with complicated labor contract and employment claims never helps. Of course, you must follow your conscience. Censorship flies in the face of everything that journalists and journalism educators stand for. It’s tough to stomach and you must determine your personal and professional comfort zone. But generally — unless the acts of your superiors are clearly illegal — you must do as you are told. Your only other options are to quit or be fired. If you believe that your boss’s actions have crossed some line you should contact your union, file a formal grievance or seek independent legal counsel.

Get It/Put It in Writing

Establish a paper trail. Stories change, especially once the heat is on. Protect yourself. You should not rely on the handshake or verbal promise of an administrator. Ask that any directive to you be put in writing. Regardless of whether they agree, you should always send a written memo confirming your understanding of their directive and the action you plan to take. If they have ordered you to do something with which you disagree, note your disagreement and, if applicable, your intention to reluctantly comply. And obviously, keep hard copies of those glowing evaluations from years gone by.

Watch What You Publicly Say and Write

In recent years, courts have not been protective of the right of employees to criticize their employers — even when it’s deserved. This is especially true when the matter is one of private — rather than public concern. While you have the right to address a school board meeting about why you generally think censorship is educationally unsound, you might find yourself in hot water if you write a letter to the editor detailing how your principal “unfairly reprimanded” you for allowing the publication of a story she disliked.

Put Your Union Dues to Work

If at any point you feel your job being threatened, notify your union representative immediately if you have one. When a censorship battle becomes an employment battle, complications can quickly set in and you need help from those with labor law experience. Unions are paid to stick up for teachers when they are mistreated. Use yours. Once a censorship battle has erupted, it is usually a good idea to ask that a union representative be present for all significant meetings with administrators that involve your job as adviser. If you are being punished for allowing your students to engage in constitutionally protected speech, demand that the union file a formal grievance on your behalf. Where you can’t publicly speak out against the censorship or about how you are being treated, insist that your union representative do so on your behalf. Teachers unions have proven powerful allies in some student media battles. If your representative is less than helpful, make some noise to union higher-ups.

Secure the Line

Be careful when using school resources to discuss your case. This is particularly true of email, which can be easily monitored by school officials. When necessary, communicate using your private phone or personal email account.

Toot Your Own Horn

Enter your publications in competition. Being able to show that a third-party has honored your student publications and/or your work as an adviser can be very helpful in deflecting administrative criticism.

Bring In The Pros

Establish regular contact with members of the professional local media. Bring in local journalists as guest speakers. Ask a reporter or editor to act as an “informal consultant” to your publication. Consider starting an internship or a “Teen Page” program with local media. Student journalists have an obvious ally in the commercial press. Enlist them. Once local journalists know and perhaps even take some “ownership” in your student journalism program, the more likely they will be to support you in your time of need.

Circle The Wagons

While it will seem at times as though it is you against the world, you have many supporters. Any student media adviser that has been in the business for more than a few years probably has endured a crisis or two. Seek them out. Ask for their advice. Or at least their ear. Contact us for information about the law (or better, have your students do so). Contact one of the national or regional journalism education organizations for moral and practical support. There is strength (and comfort) in numbers.