Ask SPLC: Can private school advisers safely testify in support of a protective student media policy?

Q: I am a student media adviser at a public high school whose principal has censored several articles over the years. Last week he did it again for no other reason, he said, than “it made the school look bad.” This has prompted my students to ask the school board to pass a new, more protective student media policy. I am tired of the principal’s interference and would like to testify in support of the policy. Can I do so safely?

A: 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. The Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education addressed the point for public school teachers: A teacher may speak out on a “matter of public concern” as long as that speech does not “substantially disrupt the efficient performance of the public school service she renders.” Unfortunately, since Pickering, the line between protected “public speech” and unprotected “private speech” has gotten pretty grey, sometimes shockingly so. 

While you have the right to address a school board meeting about why you generally think censorship is educationally unsound, citing professional sources such as the Student Press Law Center and Journalism Education Association, you might find yourself on thin ice if you started detailing how your principal “didn’t understand” journalism or that he “unfairly reprimanded” you for allowing the publication of a story he disliked.

As a general rule, it is best — and safest — to let your students take the lead in bringing up specific instances of censorship or leveling criticism at named school officials, be it at a school board meeting, testifying before the state legislature or in an interview with a local TV station. Students are not employees and have MUCH more freedom to express their views. I would encourage you to limit your speech to talking about the “big picture” arguments against administrative censorship and the benefits of an editorially independent student press.

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