Guest post: California school administrators, do better

Myesha Phukan and her production class.
Myesha Phukan with members of a former production class at Mountain View High School. PHOTO COURTESY: MYESHA PHUKAN

Myesha Phukan is a student journalist at Mountain View High School, California, and participated in the Student Press Law Center’s 2023 New Voices Student Leaders Institute. Myesha shared her story about administrators at her school threatening her student press freedom, highlighting why New Voices laws and effective school district student media policies are vital to protect student journalism.

Unlike many student journalists across the country, I live in one of 17 New Voices states where legislation provides student journalists like me with specific legal protections against censorship. I know my rights are protected, and after being a part of my school’s newspaper, the Mountain View High School Oracle, for three years now, I can confidently say I never once thought that school administrators would censor my work and attack my journalistic freedoms.

In March and April 2023, I worked with three co-writers to produce an investigative, in-depth article on sexual harassment at my school which detailed student experiences, administrative responses, the impact on students and resources for those experiencing sexual harassment. As student journalists, we saw a need to tell this story, to give a voice to those who felt they weren’t supported or heard. We saw a need to bring this topic to the forefront, to present it as it is: an unfortunately all-too-common experience for many adolescents. 

While writing the article, we reached out to our principal for an interview on administrative policies regarding Title IX violations. From there, it felt like a downward spiral. Our administration asked to review our work prior to publication and held multiple meetings with the entire journalism class and the journalists working on the article. This was less than four days before publication. 

Our principal insinuated that we may not know the whole picture and that we could be ruining the future perceptions of the alleged perpetrators by running the story. She told us the story’s impact would be catastrophic for the school and assertively requested we remove key details from the story like quotes, integral parts of sources’ stories and anything that she thought may cast a negative shadow on the school community. Administrators asked why we even needed to write the article, essentially questioning the fundamental principles of journalism: to tell the truth, to tell people’s stories and to investigate important and widespread issues in our society. In a democratic society, fair, objective and in-depth scholastic journalism is crucial. 

Student journalists are not here to push school propaganda nor to deliberately paint the school negatively. We are here to tell the truth, based on evidence, interviews and objective fact.

–– Myesha Phukan

These demands caused our writing team to feel extreme pressure and doubt, ultimately leading to self-censorship and a significantly cut and watered-down article. 

After we published the story, administrators have limited our journalism program in what feels like an attempt to lessen the publication’s impact and quality. They have cut our Intro to Journalism class and replaced our experienced adviser –– who was told she would not be returning to the program a mere month before school ended for the summer –– with a drama teacher who has little experience in journalism (and who told us himself that he wasn’t the right person for the job). This all happened in the span of less than a month with little to no communication from the administration and no chances for our input. 

Our former adviser and one of our current editors-in-chief have also threatened to sue the administration, alleging the school illegally censored our article, violating our First Amendment rights and California Education Code 48907.

The Oracle has been an integral part of MVHS for decades upon decades now and I am surprised, and quite honestly saddened, that as student journalists at a public high school in California, we’ve had to go through this. Not only for myself and my co-writers, but for the student survivors who were brave enough to share their stories. 

My co-writers and I did our due diligence on this article. We conducted numerous interviews, collected hard evidence, gave the alleged perpetrators a chance to comment and followed all other legal and ethical policies. Yet, we were still censored. 

–– Myesha Phukan

Our administration needs to be held accountable. We published this story to uplift survivors of sexual harassment and their voices and to raise awareness. The administration’s actions countered a part of that impact. I am extremely disappointed in my school’s administrators, my principal and anyone else who took part in the alleged censorship. 

Student journalists across the country are facing threats to student press freedom like this, as authorities try to censor scholastic yearbooks, newspapers and other publications. While censorship can look like administrators pulling an article from being published, it is so much more. Censorship can look like retaliation towards a student media adviser on the basis of what was published, budget cuts related to a publication’s content and shutting a journalism program down in response to stories, among other things. 

At its foundation, censorship is silencing voices that deserve to be heard. That is unacceptable.

–– Myesha Phukan

California is a New Voices state and I am lucky to live in it. Yet it is clear that the state’s laws are not protecting student journalists as they should in theory. District media policies where I live are unclear and allow the administration to take liberty with actions such as prior review. As our rights are being attacked nationwide in both New Voices and non-New Voices states, it is imperative now more than ever to take our control back. 

I urge all of you in states with or without student press protections to know your rights and take action against censorship. Share your student press freedom stories, petition your districts to adopt a strict and detailed media policy that protects your work and educate your administrators on your rights.

Student journalists’ work uplifts vital stories in every community. Do not let your administrators get away with silencing their voices and yours.