SPLC protects student journalists and adviser against unlawful censorship at school named for slain journalist

Adriana Chavira working with one of her students in the classroom.
Adriana Chavira working with one of her students in the classroom. PHOTO: DESIREE SPURKEL / DANIEL PEARL MAGNET HIGH SCHOOL

As student editors at a prominent high school journalism program bravely fought administrators’ months-long efforts to censor their paper and retaliate against their adviser, the Student Press Law Center stood by them from the moment the first threats arose. The incident eventually ended with a critical win for student press freedom.

Delilah Brumer, then co-editor-in-chief of the Pearl Post at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Los Angeles, said contacting the SPLC hotline early helped the staff gain a solid understanding that the law was on their side and get the help they needed as events unfolded. 

“Not only did SPLC guide us throughout the whole process, but they also stood by us publicly. They issued a press release after my adviser was suspended and they really fought for our rights,” Brumer said. “They didn’t just help guide us legally, but they also stood by us and it was really helpful.”

When Controversy Arose

Pearl Post staffers first contacted SPLC’s free legal hotline in February 2022 after DPMHS’s former librarian demanded that the staff remove her name from a Nov. 8, 2021, story about the impact of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The story noted that the DPMHS librarian did not return to work after the mandate went into effect, leading the school to close the library.  

Despite pressure from both the librarian and school administrators, the Pearl Post staff held their ground and decided the information in the story was newsworthy, as was mentioning the librarian by name.  

As Mike Hiestand, SPLC’s senior legal counsel, told LAist, “This is a story that deeply impacted students, the impact of the vaccine mandate, the impact that it had on the school.” The library at the school, which has about 400 students, remained closed.

SPLC staff attorneys assured the student journalists they were well within their rights under Cal. Educ. Code Section 48907, the oldest student free expression law in the country. The law ensures student editors make editorial decisions for student media with limited, specific exceptions, and it protects student media advisers from being punished for their students’ editorial choices. Further, federal privacy laws were not applicable.

When the student editors declined to change the story, DPMHS officials then took the issue to their longtime adviser, Adriana Chavira, pressuring her to remove the librarian’s name. In effect, they were directing Chavira to break the law and censor her students. 

Chavira refused, and administrators informed her in September 2022 that she would be suspended for three days without pay and have a disciplinary notice placed in her personnel file due to her “insubordination.” This disciplinary action was also clearly illegal under Section 48907.

Administrators attempted to contravene student press freedom multiple times, despite DPMHS being a magnet school dedicated to teaching journalism and communications. It is named in honor of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002. 

A Robust Response to Censorship

SPLC immediately sent a strong letter to LAUSD Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho –– co-signed by 22 organizations and individuals, including a member of Daniel Pearl’s family –– outlining the school’s obligation to uphold the California law and withdraw Chavira’s discipline. SPLC made the letter public and circulated it widely. 

SPLC, together with Chavira, reached out to partner journalism organizations and media outlets to publicize DPMHS officials’ unlawful actions. Interviews from SPLC experts repeatedly appeared in a number of media outlets including KPCC radio, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the Los Angeles Times.

Chavira immediately appealed the disciplinary actions against her. As media pressure ramped up and SPLC’s letter detailing DPMHS officials’ clear violations of the law circulated, LAUSD expedited the appeals hearing, scheduling it within days –– a highly unusual step. 

SPLC secured experienced pro bono counsel, Jean-Paul Jassy with Jassy Vick Carolan LLP, to assist in Chavira’s case, and together, they met with Chavira and her union attorneys to coordinate next steps.

The hearing resulted in the LAUSD dropping the disciplinary proceedings, a moment student press advocates celebrated. Chavira credited SPLC for supporting her and her students through the long ordeal.

“[The school district] just kept dragging it on, but SPLC was there from the beginning all the way to the end, giving us feedback, giving us direction, just hearing us out about what’s going on,” Chavira said.

“I don’t think I would have been able to keep my sanity if it wasn’t for [SPLC],” Chavira said, “because from the beginning, they said we were in the right and that reaffirmed my belief that we are doing what’s correct.” 

SPLC stands ready to help student journalists and advisers across the country who may be facing similar instances of censorship. 

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