A lawyer explains student journalists’ rights

By Mindy Gee, 15, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies
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Mindy believes her school would be better off if students had free speech.

Not many people read our school newspaper, LACES UNTIED. However, I have seen teachers tape copies to their classroom windows to block the sun, and younger students roll them up to hit each other when they’re playing around. A sophomore, Min Jea Kim said, "The school newspaper is really monotonous. Also, I once saw a section on the sports page with the previous month’s schedule of the school games. What was the point of that?"

As one of the paper’s reporters, I hate hearing such comments, but I have to admit that my classmate is right. Here at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, our paper is boring. I’d like to write more controversial articles, but I feel like there’s always someone there to shut me up whenever I have a good story idea.

I always thought the only form of censorship was the banning of books. But now I have had a taste of it right in my journalism class. Of course, the school administration wouldn’t call it censorship. My principal, my advisor, and even my editor think that we need to be responsible, and we shouldn’t criticize the administration or faculty because it disrupts the school. But after researching the law and interviewing a lawyer who specializes in free speech, I discovered that the school newspaper truly is censored.

When I asked our editor-in-chief, Perry Radford, what she believed was the role of the school newspaper, she said, "The student newspaper? I think it doesn’t matter. It’s mostly for the people involved." I think she means that although it gives the staff a chance to learn about the process of making a newspaper, the rest of the school is not intended to get anything out of it. Perry tends to be cautious because she doesn’t want us to get in trouble. She told me, "We have to abide by what [the administration] says." She felt the newspaper’s reputation had been damaged by the way we handled controversial topics last year and she is determined to avoid anything like that.

One of last year’s articles that created controversy was written by Rachel Kossman, the current co-editor. She criticized the school’s stricter dress code, newly imposed by the administration. It was all the usual stuff—no spaghetti straps, no midriffs, no tube tops, and the list went on and on. Under the new policy, administrators gave you an old shirt to wear for the rest of the day if you were caught with inappropriate clothing. Rachel hated the policy because she usually wears low-rise jeans and spaghetti straps. In her article, she described how she felt when the school made her wear a nasty off-white T-shirt all day. She wrote that the way we dress was a form of expressing our individuality, and the administration should not take that freedom away. I thought it was a powerful article, and it would be great to see more like that in our paper.

Rachel said that several teachers pulled her aside after class and told her they disagreed with her. Rachel also said she was caught for dress code violations more often after having written the article. But when I asked our principal, Frank Nishimura, about this, he denied that she was a big target for dress code violations after her article, and said his administrators would never do that.

It was no joke to them

Another problem last year was when our staff decided to print an April Fool’s issue with funny fake stories. Unfortunately, the administration considered them vulgar and inappropriate for the sixth graders (our school has middle school and high school students). One of the articles they had a problem with was a humorous story about how our school’s leadership class committed mass suicide. There was a picture of the toe of our co-editor (who was also the school president) with her name tag on it to show her fake death. Another article they disapproved of was a story about how the L.A.C.E.S. academic decathlon team was on steroids. These were ridiculous stories that not even sixth graders would believe. They are young, but not stupid.

Before they were distributed, the newspapers disappeared. The newspaper staff was stunned when our editor told us the principal did not want them distributed. Andrew Piligian, who was the advisor at the time, said he and the principal "both agreed that there were a couple of articles in the edition that were not appropriate."

After our advisor talked to to the principal, we were given a second chance to reprint the newspaper without the "inappropriate" articles. When the paper came out days later, we were made fun of for publishing an April Fool’s issue long after April 1.

After the big clash with the administration about the April Fool’s issue, at least one administrator always comes into our class to read over all the articles before they are printed. Perry does her best to make sure the administration will always approve of all our articles. However, there are times when they have rejected an article, like when a student wanted to criticize the school for targeting certain kids for so-called "random" searches. That article was replaced with a word search.

At the beginning of this school year, I proposed an article about how the new administrators have changed the atmosphere of the school for the worse, but my editor said no because it would anger the administration.

Later in the fall, the principal came up to me during lunch to inform me L.A.C.E.S. had been named the number one school in California, according to Newsweek, and encouraged me to write an article about the school’s success. Even though I appreciated him taking the time to give me a story idea, I was annoyed that he was trying to tell me what to do. I felt like I was only allowed to write positive things, and not articles that criticize the administration or faculty members even if the things I said were true. That was when I decided to write about it for L.A. Youth.

I find it highly offensive whenever I think of the effects the administration has on the newspaper, and even more offensive when they call it journalism. It is important that the readers are well-informed, even of the things that the administration may not want us to discuss. But, as I interviewed people about the situation, I did not find many who agree with me.

Our advisor Channa Cook said that school newspapers should "establish a voice for the student body … but this is not the real world. … We have to maintain order."

‘There can be limitations’

When I told my advisor and Perry that I was going to write this article, they were worried. Perry was afraid the principal might get angry and call my writing libelous, which means untrue and damaging to someone’s reputation. My advisor strongly discouraged me from talking to the principal about this and even suggested I write the article anonymously. Then she decided to talk to him before I approached him to find out what he thought about me writing this article. To my surprise, he did not have any problems with it. When I was interviewing him, he was very nice and gave me printouts about student rights from his codebooks. His printouts basically said that schools could not censor freedom of speech unless it happened to be "obscene, libelous or slanderous." Yet he told me that his position was: "Even if there is the First Amendment, there can be limitations. … The student needs to have a conversation with an administrator to see how they might write the article [if it is controversial] … the content, time and place matters."

I disagreed with him, but I started to feel uncomfortable and guilty. I began to have second thoughts about writing this article, after he was so nice to me. I wondered if I was wrong in my belief that student journalists should tell the truth in their articles. Was everyone at the school going to hate me if I spoke up?

With these doubts in my mind, I sought out last year’s advisor, Andrew Piligian, who is now retired. He was an amazing teacher and I still respect him very much. However, I was disappointed when he told me that he feels the newspaper should never criticize the faculty or staff. "It affects the work atmosphere of the whole school."

He also seemed to think it was fair that Rachel had been singled out for dress-code violations more after she wrote her article. He said, "If you’re going to bring up key issues, you’re bringing up attention to yourself … the more conscientious you are, the less censorship you’ll experience."

I guess he was telling me that student journalists have to work hard and be fair. I think students should be responsible and do a good job, but I don’t see how we can be conscientious when we’re not even getting a chance to write about certain topics.

I found only one teacher who seemed to think that student journalists should not have to submit to the administration, and should be allowed to criticize the school. Math teacher Robert Vriesman said, "The fear of censorship colors the articles. … This is not really the freedom of the press. As a high school teacher, I would like the students to experience a true newspaper."

But when I interviewed Peter Eliasberg, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, I learned that when the administration stopped us from distributing the April Fool’s issue, that was an illegal action called "prior restraint," which means articles are blocked from being published. It was reassuring to hear that students do have rights, and that we can fight for them if we know what they are.

When I told my principal that the lawyer had said that prior restraint was illegal, he said that was just one lawyer’s opinion and he wanted to research the issue further before giving any comments.

I wish that our paper could be better next year, when Rachel is going to be the editor. When I asked her if she is more cautious now about controversy after her dress-code article, Rachel said, "No, I want it. I like it." She says she "feels empowered" whenever she deals with controversial articles and sees them in print with her name on it. But can Rachel change things that much? There is only so much she can do without the support of the administration. Our paper needs a lot more support if we are really going to give our school a "true newspaper." It is my hope that people will realize that the students need a voice, and that the administration should stop restricting and censoring the journalism class.

To learn more about student press rights, contact the Student Press Law Center at www.splc.org or (703) 807-1904.