For high school newspaper advisers, standing up for students’ free speech can come with a price.
Sometimes, school administrators dole out a subtle punishment to an adviser who lets a student publish a controversial article, like a room change or a denied trip to a workshop. Other times, the adviser could be reassigned to a different position within the school — or even lose their job entirely.
Many high school newspaper advisers have said the job can be a balancing act between facilitating student free speech and respecting school administrators.
“You have conflicting loyalties,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte. “The students look to you as their champion.”
When an administrator tells a high school newspaper adviser to restrict student speech, he said, advisers often face a difficult personal dilemma. Do they stand up for what they believe in and risk losing their job? Or do they sacrifice their ideals for job security?
Sarah Nichols, student media adviser at Whitney High School in Rockland, California, addresses that balance by developing a good working relationship and creating an open line of communication with school administrators before any conflicts arise.
“I think that relationship building is critical to the success of any journalism program,” said Nichols, who also serves as vice president of the Journalism Education Association.
But sometimes, those relationships can fall apart. And when that happens, advisers who stand up for student journalism can be punished.
JEA President Mark Newton said he has seen school officials reassign high school newspaper advisers or refuse to renew their contract over articles published in school newspapers. He said principals have also been known to hire newspaper advisers who they can bully and control.
In 2015, the Student Press Law Center news site recorded just two instances of high school newspaper advisers being punished or reassigned by school administrators — one at San Gabriel High School in California and the other at Pemberton Township High School in New Jersey.
But LoMonte said the real number is “undoubtedly leagues of magnitude greater than that.” The SPLC maintains a hotline to provide legal help for advisers and student journalists, and while the organization doesn’t track the breakdown of reasons for the calls, LoMonte said it’s very common for advisers to worry about losing their jobs. But most advisers, he said, are scared to go public with their stories of retaliation from administrators, fearing even worse consequences.
Adam Goldstein, SPLC’s attorney advocate, said he speaks almost every day to an adviser who is fearful about the possibility of losing their job in retaliation for their student’s actions, which can include fighting censorship to simply writing a story.
“What’s interesting is how many administrators don’t view what they’re doing as retaliatory, because they sincerely believe the adviser’s job is to prevent students from doing anything that’s controversial or could make the school look bad,” Goldstein said.
What retaliation looks like
Nichols said she has heard of countless instances of high school newspaper advisers being punished or reassigned by school administrators. And the student newspapers, she said, can see their budgets cut or, in some cases, have their whole program threatened in response to published content.
That was the case last December at Steinmetz College Prep in Chicago, when Principal Stephen Ngo threatened to eliminate the 81-year-old high school newspaper, the Steinmetz Star, in a late-night email. The threat came after a student reporter posted a previously-censored article on a change in the school’s bell schedule online on her personal website. Ngo read the story before publication due to the school’s prior review policy, which allows an administrator to review content before publication.
Ngo later said he wrote the email in an emotional state after learning the story had been published online and did not have any intention to eliminate the paper. The bell schedule story ultimately ran in the January-February edition of the paper.
In New Jersey, Bill Gurden, a former high school newspaper adviser, filed a civil rights lawsuit in September against Pemberton Township Board of Education after being removed as adviser to the school’s newspaper, The Stinger. In the complaint, Gurden alleged that the school district’s actions were “taken with maliciousness, intentional desire to cause [him] harm.”
Gurden’s attorney did not respond to the SPLC’s repeated requests for comment. Tony Trongone, superintendent of Pemberton Township Schools, said the lawsuit has not been settled and no court proceedings have been set.
At San Gabriel High School in California in 2015, student journalists of the Matador clashed with the then-school principal Jim Schofield after he censored a story about the dismissal of a popular English teacher, instead telling students to write a positive profile without specifics of the dismissal.
The students brought their concerns to the school board, arguing Schofield violated a California law that establishes student freedom of speech in public schools. In response, the school district announced plans to implement student press safeguards and conducted an investigation into the censorship, which found Schofield did not intend to censor the Matador. Despite critics’ claims that the investigation was inadequate, Schofield was promoted to a district-level position.
Months later, student media adviser Jennifer Kim was put on indefinite administrative leave and barred from entering campus without an escort after she had an unspecified “dispute” with the new school principal at yearbook camp. Recent alumni filed a complaint with the state later that year, arguing that the school replaced Kim with two unqualified substitutes who had no prior journalism experience. Kim ultimately received a written reprimand and was allowed to resume teaching at the end of the fall term — but she returned to a student newspaper that had lost years of its archives because the administration had abruptly shut down the Matador’s website in her absence.
While adviser reassignments often make headlines, there are a number of subtle ways administrators can punish a school newspaper adviser. Nichols said school officials can assign advisers to a shared classroom or give them undesired preparation periods in retaliation for articles published in the paper.
“It’s easy to see where a teacher would walk away,” Nichols said.
In addition, LoMonte said school administrators have denied journalism educators trips to workshops and have refused to recognize awards earned by the school newspaper.
“It seems like [the possible punishments are] only limited by the imagination of the wrongdoers,” he said.
Protection under the law
In 2008, California legislators passed the Journalism Teacher Protection Act that prevents administrators from retaliating against high school advisers who refuse to infringe on their students’ free speech rights.
Legislators passed the bill to protect high school newspaper advisers like Ellen Kersey, who was reassigned from her role as newspaper adviser in 2001 after students published controversial articles in the school paper.
Kersey, who now teaches and advises the yearbook at a private university in Oregon, was the newspaper adviser at Adolfo Camarillo High School in Southern California for 15 years.
The student-run newspaper, The Stinger, stirred controversy among school administrators in spring 2000, Kersey said in an interview, when student editors decided to publish a story on teenage pregnancy authored by students at nearby Rio Mesa High School. The story was previously censored by Rio Mesa administrators.
Editors at The Stinger also wrote a separate article pointing out how the censorship by Rio Mesa school officials was illegal under California Education Code 48907, which protects student free speech in the state.
Then in February 2001, student editors at The Stinger published a story on the safety of local high schools. Kersey said the story enraged other principals in the school district, and she felt they were out to get her.
In response to the article, Adolfo Camarillo Principal Terry Tackett sent a letter to Kersey that outlined several concerns he had with the paper. In particular, Tackett had concerns with a front-page picture that showed a young man holding a gun and questioned the publication of “items regarding sensitive issues such as portraying an ethnic group in a bad light.”
Tackett wrote that he would decide whether to remove Kersey as the newspaper adviser at the end of the school year. Months later, Tackett reassigned Kersey to teach English the following year.
“I was very much in a state of shock,” she said, mentioning that her students were upset at the decision as well. “It wasn’t anything I did, it’s what I let the student do.”
Although Kersey kept her position as yearbook adviser, she left the school after that year.
Nine states currently have free expression laws that protect student journalists, while two other states have protections for student speech rights in their education code.
But without explicit adviser protection laws, LoMonte said it remains unclear what free speech rights are granted to high school advisers — or if the ability to call attention to the censorship of a student newspaper falls under protected speech for high school advisers.
In the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Court ruled that while the First Amendment protects speech by a private citizen, it does not protect speech by a government employee when it is expressed as part of their official job duties.
Teacher contracts can have retaliation protections similar to California and Kansas, the only two states with laws that protect teachers from retaliation from school administrators, LoMonte said. (A third law, Maryland, takes effect Oct. 1.)
There are currently bills going through the legislature in Illinois, Michigan and Rhode Island that would specifically protect high school newspaper advisers from retaliation by school administrators for refusing to infringe on their students’ free speech rights.
Feeling the stress
Besides battles with administrators, the stress of running one — sometimes two — student publications can take its toll on advisers.
Phillip Caston knows the pressure firsthand. He served as the newspaper adviser at JL Mann High School in South Carolina for seven years — in five of those years, he also served as yearbook adviser. Caston, who now serves as a yearbook adviser at Wando High School, said the job required long hours and a lot of time management.
February was always the most hectic month. Between getting the yearbook finalized and keeping up with newspaper deadlines, Caston said his regular classes were put on the back-burner to deal with the publications’ deadlines.
“I think I was a little bit insane,” he said. “I think I lost a little more hair than I usually do.”
Jack Kennedy, executive director of the Colorado Student Media Association, sees a different type of self-induced pressure among media advisers. He said the expectation to learn and teach a variety of media is taking its toll on advisers and contributing to a high turnover rate among newspaper advisers.
As of 2014, 43.3 percent of high school journalism advisers have no previous professional journalism experience and almost 25 percent took no journalism classes in college, according to the book Still Captive: History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism.
But JEA President Newton said a vital part of a high school journalism adviser’s job is understanding the laws and regulations related to high school press and student free speech, including Supreme Court cases and state laws.
“I think you have to be armed with that knowledge,” Newton said. Then, he said, it’s key to communicate with a school principal and facilitate conversations between student reporters and school officials.
Advisers also lack professional support, according to Still Captive, with 56 percent of high school advisers stating they had no outside help from professional journalists.
Speaking to a workshop of newspaper advisers earlier this year, Kennedy told the group they didn’t have to be an expert in every sort of media. By the time the day was over, he said he had about 10 advisers approach him to say it was so good to hear that support.
At the high school level, Kennedy said journalism classes are about teaching students to think deeply about subjects and fostering good citizens, not teaching them the latest software so they can become a professional journalist.
High school journalism is about something more too, Caston said — self-discovery and personal growth.
“That to me is what does it at the end of the day,” he said.