High school “Courage” award recognizes Southern California students confronting censorship, retaliation

November 6, 2015    
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director 
director@splc.org or 202-872-1704

High school “Courage” award recognizes Southern California students confronting censorship, retaliation 

A group of Southern California high school journalists who waged a high-profile fight against school censorship, despite forceful retaliation including the removal of their faculty adviser and the shutdown of their website, are the winners of the 2015 Courage in Student Journalism Award. 

The award will be presented to the staff of The Matador of San Gabriel High School at the National High School Journalism Convention in Orlando on Nov. 14. The award is sponsored by the Kent State University Center for Scholastic Journalism, which endows a cash prize for the winners, and is co-presented by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association. 

“This award recognizes the bravery of outspoken student leaders – including Kelly Ho, Thomas Wang, Sydney Trieu, Rebecca Lei and Simon Yung – who have taken great risk in calling out the power structure of their corrupt school district,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “What is going on in the Alhambra Unified School District is a national disgrace, and the public knows about it only because these young journalists are unafraid to tell the truth, even in the face of intimidation tactics.”  

LoMonte said it is especially noteworthy that the staff of The Matador continued providing in-depth coverage of the Alhambra Unified School District’s school board even during summer vacation when the students were receiving no credit for their work and their adviser was unpaid. “At a time when the local media’s coverage of education news has been eroded by cutbacks and layoffs, substantive student journalism is the public’s best safety net. These students performed – and their successors continue to perform – an invaluable public service in shining a light on the behavior of government officials,” he said. 

“The fight for open government and transparency is one of the most important student journalists can pursue,” said Mark Goodman, professor and Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “These reporters and editors at San Gabriel High School stood up for the right of their community to know the facts and they are continuing that effort to this day.  We all owe them and their adviser a debt of gratitude.” 

During the spring of 2015, reporters for The Matador sought to cover San Gabriel High School’s unexplained removal of a popular teacher and debate coach, Andrew Nguyen, including protests seeking Nguyen’s reinstatement and threats made against Nguyen if he did not act to quell the protests. Then-principal Jim Schofield ordered adviser Jennifer Kim to prevent the publication of any mention of the teacher’s removal, despite California statutes making such censorship unlawful. With help from the Student Press Law Center, the students appealed the directive to their superintendent and were able, belatedly, to publish complete coverage. However, the students’ complaint to the school board seeking punishment of Schofield for violating California’s student free expression law went nowhere after the board’s attorneys – without interviewing any student or adviser – issued an “investigation report” that exonerated Schofield. 

The students then began a vigil at Alhambra school board meetings, using the public-access portion of each meeting to demand answers about Nguyen’s removal and the censorship of The Matador. Retaliating against the students, the school district has shuttered the Matador’s news website, replacing it with a new school-supervised version that contains none of their archived coverage. The district also placed Kim on indefinite leave, which has lasted more than three months, purportedly to investigate whether she spoke rudely to her principal during a summer yearbook camp.  

“Shutting down a website to stop the public from reading truthful coverage of the actions of government officials is something we would associate with North Korea. It has no place in America, and doubly so in an educational institution whose leaders are supposed to be modeling democratic values for a new generation of citizens,” LoMonte said.  

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. An archive of previous winners of the SPLC’s college and high-school journalism awards is online.