When Janet Ewell heard about the editor of an Orange County high school newspaper in hot water with school officials for writing about openly gay classmates, she reacted with disappointment, but hardly surprise.
“I thought, oh, shoot, here we go again,” said the veteran journalism teacher who has had her own encounters with administrators.
The case highlights the continuing friction between student journalists and school administrators over the autonomy of campus papers.
Last week, the assistant principal of Troy High School in Fullerton told senior Ann Long that if she did not resign as co-editor in chief of the school newspaper, the Oracle, he would remove her.
The punishment stemmed from Long’s failure to get permission from students’ parents before writing and publishing an article in which the students discussed their decision to reveal their sexual orientation. Administrators said Long violated journalism ethics that addressed privacy as well as a state education code that prohibited asking students about their sexuality without parental permission.
Student journalism advocates said that although Long might have displayed a lapse in judgment, she had done nothing illegal and did not deserve such punishment.
The issue is not black and white. Legal experts generally contend that the portion of the education code that bans talking to students about religion and sexuality without parental permission is directed at teachers and staff, such as school nurses, and not at other students.
And though many newspapers, as a matter of ethics, instruct reporters not to interview children under 18 without parental permission, media lawyers say they don’t know of a published court case that requires it.
But 1st Amendment experts said the broad freedoms afforded student journalists under California law protected students from any retribution for writing such articles.
“They have the right to ask these questions and to publish the results,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware.
Long is among hundreds of student journalists who lock horns with school administrators in California each year over control of campus newspapers. Thrown into the mix are newspaper advisors who generally are English instructors untrained in journalism laws and ethics, and principals who must abide by California laws that on one hand protect student privacy and on the other provide student journalists with an unusual amount of freedom and protection when compared with other states.
In fact, no other state generated more complaints about school newspaper censorship in 2003 than California, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Law Press Center in Arlington, Va.
Among the most publicized of those cases unraveled at Venice High School, where the principal, citing privacy issues, pulled a story from the Oarsman newspaper about a teacher’s past relationship with an underage movie star.
“I don’t believe it’s an issue of censorship. It might be the public’s right to know, but as the principal, I don’t think it’s the student newspaper’s place to tell that story,” Principal Janice Davis said at the time.
The paper’s editors were told by lawyers that the law was on their side, but they decided not to sue the school.
In governing student newspapers, most states cite a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gives school administrators broad power to censor student publications.
But California had previously passed laws that specifically require school officials to prove that a story is libelous, obscene or will threaten safety before they can interfere.
Despite the general autonomy granted to California campus editors, Goodman and other student journalism advocates said, the reality on campus is often quite different.
“You can write all the laws you want, but school administrators are still going to have the instinct to control things and avoid controversial issues or stories that reflect badly on the school,” said Wayne Overbeck, a recently retired Cal State Fullerton media law professor.
Gene Campbell, principal at Rancho Alamitos High in Garden Grove, where Ewell teaches, does not disagree. He says principals are left “to balance on a tightrope” as they try to protect student and teacher privacy, and guard against lawsuits, while also adhering to the law.
Both sides of the debate are watching the unresolved case of a Palisades High School teacher who sued the Los Angeles Unified School District for not preventing a satirical article in an independent student paper that referred to her as a porn star. A jury awarded the teacher, Janis Adams, $4.35 million in 2002, but a judge vacated the award as excessive. The case is under appeal.
Partly because principals would rather avoid the tensions that come with journalism programs, and because of budget cuts and increased focus on core curriculum, journalism courses are being scaled back.
Between 1998 and 2003, the number of high school journalism classes in California declined by 15%, said Steven O’Donoghue, who trains Bay Area journalism teachers.
“Far from being a priority at a lot of schools,” O’Donoghue said, “it is often a pariah.”
O’Donoghue and others say much of the friction between student reporters and school officials arises because of poorly trained journalism teachers.
In California, student newspapers are folded into a school’s English department, and no training on journalism ethics or standards is required for an English teacher to take over as a paper’s advisor.
“The vast majority of teachers have no experience,” O’Donoghue said. “They can’t do a good job advising the kids because they themselves never got the training.”
Ewell, the Garden Grove teacher, agreed, saying she was unaware even of the state’s press law for students when she started advising in 1992 and was left to seek training on her own.
Ewell has had her own experience with campus freedom-of-press issues. In 2002, Campbell removed her as the campus newspaper’s advisor after the paper ran a series of articles critical of teachers and school facilities. Campbell reinstated her when she cited the protections afforded the paper by state law.
She and other advisors say that because state law does not protect advisors from culpability when campus newspapers are sued, young, untenured teachers are vulnerable to pressure from principals -- their employers -- when debates arise over publishing controversial articles.
Ewell expressed hope that a recent resolution by a national association of English teachers, which calls for increased training and support for journalism programs, would help bolster student newspapers. But she and Overbeck agreed that conflict was inevitable. “These types of problems will continue as long as there are student newspapers,” Overbeck said.