How Students are Fighting Free Speech Limits at Schools, Colleges

November 21, 2015

By Courtney Tompkins at The Daily Breeze

When Simon Yung graduated from San Gabriel High School six months ago he could have walked away from the embattled school district, but his desire to give others a voice pushed him to do something different.

Yung, 18, was part of a team of student journalists who tried to cover a story about the sudden dismissal of an inspirational teacher in May, but when students asked for comment from administration, they were shut down by their principal. The students fought back, challenging what they said was censorship and alleged the administrator had violated their free speech rights.

Dozens protested at a series of board meetings over summer, demanding the teacher be reinstated and the administrator be disciplined for his actions.

Yung, newly graduated, was among those leading the charge. The students sought answers, but were met with only vague responses.

“This is a time in life when students are learning what it’s like to be an active member of society,” Yung said. “And when people see something they believe needs to be fixed, whether it be at the high school, university or government level, it’s only common sense that they should learn to stand up and speak out for their rights.”

Student free speech rights have taken center stage from Los Angeles to San Bernardino County, and across the nation in recent months — forcing administrators at high school and college levels to evaluate what on-campus publications can say.

Here’s a snapshot of the landscape:

• In Alhambra, concern over the San Gabriel High School publication led to the news website being shut down and summer production prohibited. The students’ journalism adviser Jennifer Kim has also been onadministrative leave since August, a move the students alleged wasretaliatory.

• In Redlands, former editors of the University of Redlands’ student newspaper The Bulldog Weekly launched an independent, online publication that also covers the school, after they became unhappy with the university’s role in the newspaper. They alleged the hiatus that student government used to stop the paper from publishing was akin to censorship. The student government pulled funding for the publication in late 2014 after an article quoted a student saying a prestigious scholarship was designed for “rich, white males.” The students launched the independent site in the spring.

• On a national scale, the Society of Professional Journalists has tracked at least six examples of what the organization says were administrators or faculty cracking down on student journalism, ranging from exposing mold on university buildings to a viral video of a University of Missouri communications professor trying to shut down a photographer covering astudent protest at Mizzou.

‘BULLIES’ V. ‘BALANCE’

SPJ’s president Paul Fletcher called such action bullying, as campus administrators try to squash the “bad” news about campuses and allow the “happy” news.

It’s a balancing act.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that fights speech restrictions on campuses around the country, launched anationwide litigation project that aims to abolish “restrictive” campus speech codes.

Spokesman Nico Perrino said the organization compiled a comprehensive list of 28 California colleges and universities that it determined to have“restrictive” protest and demonstration policies. In addition to USC, all nine University of California campuses and 17 Cal State University campuses made the list.

“As a result of campuses becoming more diverse places, I think students are bringing a greater number of ideas to the table, and they’re running into opposition from students and administrators who disagree with them,” Perrino said. “Some of these students and administrators are great about accepting new opinions, but in other cases, you see censorship.”

Censorship can be very much in the eye of the beholder, and for administrators, trying to strike a balance between the need to get information out and protect the interests of their campuses can be a difficult endeavor.

FIRE Program Director Azhar Majeed said however, that the two ideals don’t need to be in tension with one another.

“Administrators want to protect students from discrimination and harassment, and certainly that’s a commendable goal and something they have a legal obligation to do, but there’s a way to do that while still protecting First Amendment rights,” he said. “When you have these broad restrictive policies that allow for punishment of protected speech … you’re teaching students that if you don’t like something someone says, the answer is to call for censorship rather to engage in discussion and debate.”

WHAT RIGHTS DO THEY HAVE?

Courts have historically been more protective of college students’ speech, as they are granted the same rights on a public campus as an adult on a public sidewalk.

On the other hand, many high school administrators rely on a 1988 landmark Supreme Court ruling, Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, which likened principals to publishers and labeled the student newspaper the voice of the entire campus, administrators included. The ruling did not completely strip away First Amendment rights for K-12 students, but it did diminish them. Under the Hazelwood standard, administrators need only demonstrate a “reasonable educational basis” for censorship.

California, however, is among 10 states, and the District of Columbia, that have enacted laws that grant student journalists more legal protection against censorship than the bare minimum the U.S. Constitution requires, according to data from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC).

“When the Supreme Court sets standards, they are setting the floor, not the ceiling,” SPLC Executive Director Frank Lomonte said. “A state is free to give you more than the bare minimum of rights and California has chosen to do that.”

California Education Code 48907, or the California Student Free Expression Law, provides protections for high school journalists attending public high schools, with added protection against administrative censorship. The statute also protects teachers, advisers and other school personnel against retaliation for attempting to protect or further a pupil’s free speech rights, said Jim Ewert, general counsel for California Newspapers Publishers Association.

Under the statute, there are “narrowly tailored” reasons for censorship; content that is considered libelous, slanderous, obscene or could incite a “clear and present” danger on campus would meet the standard. California is also the only state in the nation to have enacted a “Leonard Law,” which extends similar press freedoms to private colleges and universities.

In cases like Alhambra, administrators have been largely silent on why they’ve cracked down.

They would not talk with the Los Angeles News Group for this story.

The Alhambra school board seemed to be making headway at an October meeting when it adopted a district-wide free speech policy. But, the move came one week after the district shut down student-run news websites with little notice.

Ewert called the Alhambra controversy a “disturbing” development in student journalism in California.

“I’ve never seen a school district that has been more ignorant of the law, at best, or at worst, just completely flaunted its behavior in the face of it,” said Ewert, who helped draft the state education code. “This is the worst scenario that I’ve seen anywhere in the state, and I’ve done this for 20 years.”

In the meantime, the student journalists in Alhambra were recognized on a national level this month for their ‘bravery’ and resilience. The students were the sole recipients of the 2015 Courage in Student Journalism Award.

FEAR OF OFFENDING

Some First Amendment scholars say technology, coupled with the ease of sharing information over social media, is driving the push for student activism. But that drive has also been forcing administrators to grapple with new kinds of freedom of information issues in an age of cultural sensitivity.

Rules and policies are being driven by an underlying concern about not offending groups on campus, said Peter Scheer, executive director at the First Amendment Coalition.

“It’s a concern about some forms of student speech, even though it’s protected under the First Amendment, causing real or imagined harms by offending some groups of students, or perhaps other segments of the academic community,” he said. “It’s about protecting the feelings and sensitivities of other groups of students, and that’s a different phenomenon — compared to the 1960s and 70s when the free speech movement was at its height on campuses — it’s a different kind of activism.”

SOCIAL MEDIA OFFERS NEW OUTLET

In recent years, students have been turning to platforms they were practically born into, and know very well.

Twitter. Facebook. Instagram and blogs have become ways to get information out, and recent debates over the issue of free speech policy have become fodder for those platforms.

Scheer said social media, combined with the fact that we are amid a presidential campaign and a nationwide “Black Lives Matter” movement, has brought certain issues to the forefront.

“Social media is a medium for open public debate and it’s very easy to shift from using it to arrange for social events or to chat with friends to complaining about something in the news or something that happened at school that they want to object to or protest,” he said. “It’s an easy step to take because students are familiar with the technology.”

Kristy Duong, former editor-in-chief for San Gabriel High School’s student newspaper and a freshman at Stanford University, said social media played a crucial role in the ability to gather people together to organize protests, craft speeches and produce summer coverage of the Alhambra school district.

“Social media is a tool for mobilizing people and networking, and it’s been sort of essential for communication between us and the community,” she said. “I think it would have been a lot more difficult for us to gather people together and to get this information out quickly if social media didn’t exist.”

Duong, and other former Alhambra students created an “underground” news blog dedicated solely to coverage of the Alhambra school district. With the disappearance of all archives and the students’ award-winning summer coverage, this provides a snapshot of the issues facing the district.

Schools: University of California Stanford University University of Missouri – Columbia Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech