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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