At the start of each school year it is important to have a frank conversation with your students about your role as adviser. You support them; you believe in them; you will always strive to do your best by them. But you — unlike the students themselves — are also a school employee. And you need to remind them that sometimes an employee has to do things they’d rather not simply because their employer tells them to. It’s important that students understand now — before the heat and emotion that comes with a censorship fight or some other big blow-up — that they must be willing and able to take the leadership role should it be necessary to challenge administrative action. It is a student publication. Courts have made clear that it is their legal rights — not the adviser’s — that are at stake. This must be their fight.
The bottom line is that students must be willing to stand up to protect their own free speech rights. Their adviser being fired for insubordination does no one any good.
Remind them, too, that employees often have to bite their lip. If a protest is to be staged, if parents are going to be asked to call district officials or if calls from local news media need to be returned, that’s not something you, as an employee, should do (or even encourage).
We recommend having this conversation as soon as possible in the school year. If you wait until tensions are already high, your boss may accuse you of fanning the flames.
In this discussion, give your students a list of student media resources they can use if you have to take a step back. Give them contact information for your state student journalism group, the national Journalism Education Association, local newspaper editors or reporters. Make sure they know how to find the SPLC’s Legal Hotline, where they can send the SPLC’s legal team an email or set up a phone call and receive a response at no charge. Remind them that we can provide free legal assistance and guidance not only for help on a censorship matter but for any media-law question that might come up during the year. Finally, pass on the link for the Censorship Checklist now so you can naturally back away should things heat up. (And keep this Adviser’s Checklist for yourself.)
By preparing for the worst-case scenario you help protect yourself and your students in the long run. Remember, SPLC has your back!