New California law protects school journalism advisors

When California public schools resume classes Monday, high school and college journalism advisors will be protected by a new state law designed to promote 1st Amendment freedoms.

The so-called Journalism Teacher Protection Act, which became law Thursday, prohibits school administrators from retaliating against advisors for trying to protect student press freedoms.

The measure, the most stringent of its kind in the nation, closes a loophole in state law that for years has ensured free speech rights for students but failed to guarantee protections for advisors, according to supporters. They say administrators have been able to exercise de facto campus censorship by clamping down on journalism advisors.


“Any day some story could come to me and my students that would put me in a bad position,” said Paul Kandell, a journalism advisor at Palo Alto High School. “Without some security, teachers like me would lose their jobs.”

Kandell, who has advised journalism students for 13 years, considers himself fortunate. He said he hasn’t had problems regarding story or censorship issues at his school.

But that hasn’t been the case with other advisors.

In the last three years, at least 15 high school journalism advisors have lost their jobs or been reassigned by administrators who perceived stories as critical, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.

He said Colorado is the only state that provides similar protections for advisors. But the new California law goes one step further by protecting any school employee, such as someone who might help distribute a newspaper, from being reassigned or losing a job merely for helping ensure free speech.

“If administrators can go after the teachers, then students are going to be less likely to do the bold stories and the investigative stories that the law encourages them to do,” said Ewert, who was also the lobbyist for the bill.

Supporters of the measure point out that state law allows administrators to block publication of information that is obscene or libelous or would incite an immediate disruption of the educational process, such as a campus riot. The new law, supporters say, is intended to promote good teaching by protecting advisors.

The measure was sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). He said Saturday that he was moved to act after hearing repeated stories from across the state about good advisors stripped of their jobs after their students pursued valid stories.

Such retaliation, he said, “was simply a ruse to get rid of a particular teacher who was helping students get a newspaper out.”

Yee said that his measure was opposed by some school administrators and board members but that 1st Amendment issues outweighed their concerns.

One of the cases often cited by supporters involved Janet Ewell, who oversaw an award-winning journalism program at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove. She lost her advisor job in 2002 after her students wrote editorials criticizing filthy bathrooms and bad cafeteria food.

Ewell, now an English teacher at the school, said Saturday that she sympathized with school administrators, many of whom are under pressure to make their schools look good. “They don’t want any bump in their public relations image,” she said.

But the bottom line, Ewell said, is that student newspapers are not publicity newsletters for school principals. And she hopes the new law will ensure that stories are published, regardless of how they may be perceived.

“It’s wonderful to see that people care about 1st Amendment rights and care about protecting students’ rights,” she said.