A high school newspaper was cut during the pandemic. Is it a sign of things to come?

(Medieval Times seniors pose in front of Rialto High School in Southern California. The journalism course’s adviser, Cassandra Rodriguez, is pictured second from left / Photo by Cassandra Garcia)

CALIFORNIA — Cassandra Garcia, a rising senior at Rialto High School in Southern California is fighting to bring back a journalism course at her high school after her principal removed the class from the fall schedule without informing students or the adviser. 

Garcia is a reporter for the Medieval Times, Rialto’s student newspaper. The school’s previous principal brought the journalism course back five years ago after it had been dormant for over a decade, the Medieval Times’ faculty adviser Cassandra Rodriguez said. The former principal made it clear to students that the school would cover printing costs for the newspaper; but students fundraised for operating needs.

On March 17 — the day California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced schools would likely close for the year — Rodriguez received her course assignments for the 2020-21 academic year. She was confused why the journalism class wasn’t included.

Rodriguez said Rialto’s principal Caroline Sweeney assured her the assignments weren’t permanent. It wasn’t until May that Garcia’s counselor contacted her saying she needed to pick another elective, because the journalism course had been permanently dropped — Rodriguez said she was never informed of the cancelation. 

Garcia said Sweeney attributed the course’s removal to budgeting, staffing and student enrollment. 

Garcia and Rodriguez questioned Sweeney’s budget argument, given the original plan to cut the course was made before COVID-19 had fully gripped the nation. As for staffing, Rodriguez, an English teacher, said she enjoyed the course so much she was heading back to college to pursue a degree in journalism. 

Garcia said she was the only junior on the Medieval Times staff during the 2019-20 academic year, and the rest of staff was made up of more than 20 now-graduated seniors. She said that by March, though, she had already personally recruited five students to take the course.

Sweeney has not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

[the paper] gives students a voice to be reckoned with

Seeking to revive the newspaper, Garcia contacted Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline in June for information on any legal defenses students might have against the course cancelation.

SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand advised Garcia to file a Freedom of Information request with her school district requesting any documents proving the school faced scheduling, budgeting, staffing or enrollment challenges when it chose to cut the Medieval Times

The school district responded to the FOI more than a month later, saying Garcia’s request was “impermissibly vague, ambiguous, and lacking in sufficient clarity to allow the District a reasonable opportunity to identify discrete records in its possession, custody or control that are responsive to the requests,” according to the district’s response letter. 

Attempting to censor

Last year, a student wrote an editorial in support of abortion rights, which Sweeney attempted to censor.

Garcia said Sweeney was offended by the article and told students it would be an outrage if the story ran. The story eventually did run — along with a front-page article explaining why the censorship threat delayed the article.

This past year was Sweeney’s first at Rialto High, which Garcia said likely made her timid about what the students chose to print. It was a vast difference from the previous principal who had been there for six years and was outwardly supportive of the Medieval Times.

Rodriguez said Sweeney also successfully stopped a column about serial killers, titled “Faces of a Madman” from running in that same issue.

The 1977 California student free expression law gives student journalists in the state expansive protections from censorship and prior restraint. Retaliation against faculty advisers for content produced by students is also illegal under the code.

California was the first state in the nation to pass a law specifically protecting student media. 

“I was in that unfortunate position of kind of having to explain to [Sweeney] some of the rules … and that did actually create some awkwardness I guess,” Rodriguez said. “She [initially] seemed supportive, but after that incident I feel like that just changed her outlook.”

Garcia said without the journalism class, student journalists will miss out on important reporting experience, and the entire student body will suffer from not having their voices heard.

“Though the newspaper is mainly written by the students of the Journalism course, students from throughout the school are interviewed and included in articles,” Garcia wrote to Sweeney in a letter from May on why the course should not be cut. “They are also encouraged to write submissions that will be featured in the newspaper or on our new online website.”

The class really teaches them how to be informed citizens, and it really can just guide their whole path into adulthood

“It gives students a voice to be reckoned with,” Garcia wrote. “Students feel included in some way which can be hard in high school with teenagers still trying to find their clique.”

Rodriguez watched some of her very first students in the course graduate college with journalism degrees this spring. She isn’t giving up on the program, she said, and she wants students like Garcia to have the basic skills they need for college journalism courses.

“Especially with the way things are — for a student to be able to have this outlet to be able to have this learning experience in high school at this age is so important,” Rodriguez said. “The class really teaches them how to be informed citizens, and it really can just guide their whole path into adulthood … everything should be done to keep the class — I mean it’s for the students.”

She said, regardless of the cut, she still plans to get a journalism degree. 

Knowing your rights  

Student journalists’ legal protections vary state to state, but it is unconstitutional for public schools to cut funding to student media for content-based reasons. Proving a cut was retaliatory in nature can be difficult, though. 

COVID-19 has also created an enormous financial burden for schools, and administrators are beginning to cut student journalism (and other programs) to save money. But student journalists can fight these cuts:  

“I ask nearly all of my callers what’s going on with their schools and particularly their j-programs and — even now, a month out [from the start of the academic year] — many aren’t sure what’s going to happen,” Hiestand said. “I have had a couple people in programs that are purely extracurricular say that — along with other extracurricular programs and clubs — it looks like their programs may be eliminated or curtailed. [Rialto] was one of the first curricular programs to say they were axing their program entirely.”

Student media organizations facing problems like limited access or defunding because of the pandemic can present their administrators with this letter to argue their case. 

News media has been deemed an essential service in every state during the COVID-19 pandemic. Student media should be no exception, said Hadar Harris, Student Press Law Center’s executive director.

“Moreover, young journalists provide a unique and essential perspective at this time. They understand and can identify issues that older journalists might miss,” Harris writes. “They speak their readers’ language and provide a trusted forum for young voices to share their concerns and have their questions answered.”

If you suspect your program is being targeted, in whole or in part, because of the content of past, present or future student media coverage, contact SPLC’s free legal hotline right away. Adviser retaliation and content-based financial changes are censorship, and our attorneys may be able to help.

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