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Student Newspaper Advisors on Thin Ice

There's only one assignment that's tougher than being a classroom teacher today and that's being the student newspaper advisor ("Principal pulls school paper that critiques teachers' performance," New York Post, Apr. 30).  That's because, with the exception of California and Colorado, no law protects such advisors from retaliation by their principals.

The latest - but certainly not the last- example is Flushing High School in the New York City system, where the principal denied publication of the Flushing Advocate because he called everything in the latest issue "negative and disparaging." Chris Marzian, the English teacher who is the newspaper's advisor, deserves high praise for defending the students whose articles triggered the controversy.

The free speech rights of student journalists were seemingly settled in 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al. that unless student newspapers have been established as forums for student expression, they have a lower level of First Amendment protection.  As a result, principals can remove material they alone deem inappropriate or offensive.

When I received my M.S. in journalism from the UCLA Graduate Department of Journalism, I was offered a job teaching the subject at Los Angeles City College.  I turned it down because I sensed that with students outraged over the nation's growing involvement in Vietnam, it would be impossible to simultaneously perform my duty as a professional journalist and a salaried teacher.  The Hazelwood decision confirmed my intuition.

That's why California passed the Journalism Teacher Protection Act in January 2009, which is the most stringent in the nation.  It closed a loophole that guaranteed free speech rights for students but not for advisors. It shields employees from being "dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for solely refusing an administrator's order to illegally censor speech.

In states without such a shield law, the only way that students and their advisors can prevail is if their newspapers are designated as public forums.  In such cases, principals are rarely permitted to censor unless they can prove that the content "materially and substantially" interferes with the school's operation and discipline. Nevertheless, I still wouldn't want to be a high school newspaper advisor.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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