Calif. district installs safeguards for student press freedom, but protests over censorship continue

CALIFORNIA — The outcry over a high school principal’s alleged censorship of a student newspaper article about the dismissal of a popular teacher has spread throughout the larger community, despite the district’s promises to prevent future First Amendment disputes.

At a packed Alhambra Unified School District board meeting on June 22, students from San Gabriel High School asked the school board for principal Jim Schofield’s resignation. Schofield, who has been accused of censoring the article in The Matador student newspaper, will assume a new position as the district’s director of English language development in July, according to the Pasadena Star News.

On June 19, attorneys for the school district announced plans to implement several safeguards for the student press — mandatory student media training for staff members involved with student publications, revised procedures that align with California Education Code 48907, and a publications code for each high school to ensure students and staff are informed of the legal parameters of student expression.

“The district strongly supports the right of students to lawfully exercise their freedom of expression,” James Fernow and Jordan Bilbeisi, attorneys for the school district, wrote. Still, they said they found that Schofield did not intend to censor the article.

Their letter was in response to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which sent a letter to the district on June 2 calling for an investigation into Schofield’s actions. The ACLU letter, written by Peter Eliasberg, the legal director of ACLU of Southern California, threatened the district with a lawsuit if it did not address the issue of student censorship. Eliasberg did not respond to requests for comment.

Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director, said the district’s investigation was “completely inadequate” since it didn’t include interviews with student journalists or their adviser.

“It’s unsurprising that people accused of breaking the law don’t admit it,” he said. “Had the board done a genuine and thorough investigation, they would have found that Mr. Schofield did not merely issue a cautionary opinion but issued a direct and unequivocal order, which he claimed to be conveying from the superintendent, forbidding the discussion of Mr. Nguyen’s removal — an order he had no legal authority to give. It’s incumbent on the board to go back to the drawing board and conduct a genuine investigation that includes talking to more than just the accused wrongdoers.”

When San Gabriel High first-year English teacher and speech and debate coach Andrew Nguyen was dismissed in May, student journalists at The Matador tried to cover the issue and interview Schofield, who said he couldn’t speak to “alleged employee matters” because of privacy policies.

Schofield then asked to pre-approve the article, saying that the article must only be a positive feature about Nguyen without specifics of his dismissal. The students published the pre-approved feature about Nguyen’s departure on The Matador’s website, along with a short editorial alerting readers that the coverage had been censored.

In a written statement on June 19, Schofield said he had been concerned with Nguyen’s “constitutional right to privacy,” saying that an article by The Matador would violate Nguyen’s privacy if published.

Once Schofield saw the article, he fully approved it, according to his statement.

“I now recognize I could have more clearly stated that it was not my intent to censor the article, but only to ensure the editors understood and took into account Mr. Nguyen’s right to privacy,” Schofield said in his statement. “I fully recognize and appreciate that students have a right to exercise lawful freedom of expression in school publications.”

But students involved in the issue haven’t found Schofield’s explanation to be genuine. San Gabriel High alumnus David Lam said that the incident does not come as a surprise.

“Of things to note is that this is not an isolated incident,” Lam said. “Schofield (and the school board) has a long history of intimidation and censorship.”

Some students voiced frustration that Schofield’s planned promotion will continue despite the controversy.

“To my knowledge, Schofield’s promotion was already set in stone before the censorship took place,” said Simon Yung, copy editor at The Matador. “However, for the board to press on with his promotion in light of his actions towards The Matador and especially to Andrew Nguyen is an affront to the constituents of the Alhambra Unified School District.”

At the board meeting, several current and past students spoke for over an hour, asking the district for increased transparency. The district has been slow to publish complete meeting minutes, according to the Pasadena Star News.

Kyle Qi, who dressed up in a costume in bubble wrap as “Transparency Man,” said that the minutes from previous meetings were not substantial enough, and should be freely accessible by members of the public as a video and audio recording. The written minutes contained a highly paraphrased section of the board meeting and were an inaccurate portrayal of the meeting, Qi said.

“If someone in the audience hadn’t recorded that meeting, all that would remain of our voices would be the over­-simplified minutes,” Qi said. “From your perspective, we may as well have not spoken at the last meeting. If people at home read the minutes, they would only have seen the black and white issue of wanting a teacher rehired, not the complete spectrum of the problems plaguing this school district.”

Contact SPLC staff writer David Lim by email or at 202-974-6314.