High school journalism advisors are on thin ice

Advisors to high school newspapers have long found themselves caught between their duty to their students and their responsibility to their school district (“Hard News. Angry Administration. Teenage Journalists Know What It’s Like,” The New York Times, Jul. 2).  Although in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school administrators do not violate the First Amendment when they exercise control over student speech in school activities, the ruling did not specifically apply to newspaper advisors.

Recognizing their precarious position, California in 2009 passed the Journalism Teacher Protection Act, which prohibits administrators from retaliating against advisors for helping to ensure free speech.  At the time, it was the most stringent in the nation.  Yet to this day, many teachers are highly reluctant to become newspaper advisors.  It’s not their job that they fear.  Instead it’s their uneasy feeling about censorship, and the pressure they feel trying to balance their duties.

I understand their hesitation.  Most high school principals view school newspapers as house organs, existing primarily as public relations vehicles.  Anything remotely controversial alarms them.  During the height of the Vietnam War, the principal of the high school where I spent my entire 28-year career confiscated The Warrior, the school newspaper that expressed views he deemed unpatriotic.  To get around his veto, student published an off-campus version titled The Worrior that they distributed on the street surrounding the campus.

To this day, the rights of newspaper advisors are murky because of local customs and state laws.  I wouldn’t want to be an advisor under those conditions.

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2 Replies to “High school journalism advisors are on thin ice”

  1. No easy answers here. In my opinion, high school newspapers are (or should be) subject to censorship by the school system — that is, the school system is the publisher and therefore has the right to control what is published. This is analogous to the Washington Post or the LA Times being published by a private owner and the private owner having the right to control what is published in the newspaper. The confusion — understandable — arises in the high school newspaper context because the publisher (the school system) is the govt and the First Amendment protects citizens against govt interference with free speech. In my opinion, the correct analysis is that the school system, when publishing the newspaper, is acting more like a private publisher than like a govt for purposes of a First Amendment analysis — that is, the First Amendment, properly interpreted, applies to the govt when the govt is acting in its police capacity rather than when it is acting in its service-provider capacity (as is the case with a school system).

    Certainly, a school system does not violate a math teacher’s First Amendment rights when the school system requires that the math teacher teach math to his third period class rather than, say, teaching poetry or reading the Dem party platform to the class. This follows because the school system is acting as an employer or as a service provider rather than as the police in its relationship with the teacher and the students. The same applies to the publication of a school newspaper.

    However, your basic point is completely valid — a school newspaper faculty sponsor does not violate students’ First Amendment rights when he/she censors an article. However, in deciding whether to censor an article, the sponsor must exercise judgment in deciding what the school system’s chain of command wants published. If the sponsor errs on the side of publishing something that the chain of command subsequently determines was inappropriate, the sponsor would be subject to discipline or even discharge + the circumstances make it likely that public pressure will be applied to the school system to “do something” about the arguably inappropriate article, so the school system might impose discipline that is unwarranted simply to satisfy the public pressure. And, of course, the kind of teacher who would be inclined to be a newspaper sponsor is probably the kind of person who strongly believes in giving student writers the maximum freedom possible. Agree that newspaper sponsors deserve our sympathy — and thanks.


  2. Labor Lawyer: High school journalism sponsors do not enjoy the same rights that college journalism sponsors do. They received some greater protection in California and in a handful of other states. But even then, their first duty is to their employer – the school district. Most principals view student newspapers as primarily house organs, which means they don’t want anything controversial.


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