ACLU threatens to sue California district amid allegations that school officials censored article in student publication about dismissal of popular teacher
According to the Pasadena Star-News, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU-SoCal) is threatening legal action against the Alhambra Unified School District (AUSD) following student journalists’ claims that San Gabriel High School (SGHS) Principal Jim Schofield censored an article about first-year teacher Andrew Nguyen’s termination. ACLU-SoCal legal director Peter Eliasberg sent a letter to AUSD Superintendent Laura Tellez-Gagliano requesting that she investigate the students’ claims. The letter stated: “I request you to take appropriate action to ensure that these legal violations do not occur again. If you fail to do so, it will sharply increase the likelihood that the school and the district will be subject to a lawsuit.”
SGHS student newspaper, “The Matador,” began working on an article about first-year teacher Andrew Nguyen’s dismissal in May 2015, but when the students approached Principal Jim Schofield for a comment on the article, he allegedly told the adviser that the newspaper could not publish any articles relating to Nguyen’s impending departure. The Matador’s staff issued a statement that said: “The Matador views this as a clear violation of freedom of the press … as Nguyen’s dismissal is an ongoing and public incident relevant to the school.”
The allegations against the district include violating the students’ First Amendment rights and a provision in the California education code that governs student communications on high school campuses. “It’s very early and I don’t have all the information yet, but sources provided me with enough information that I wanted to make sure the district was aware there was potentially a very serious problem,” Eliasberg said.
Under the code, the only speech that can be prohibited is that which is “obscene, libelous or scandalous.” It also prohibits material that incites pupils to create a “clear and present danger” on school premises or would disrupt the orderly operation of the school. Eliasberg said an attorney for the school district later contacted him and informed him that they were investigating the claims.
Three student journalists met with the superintendent, assistant superintendent Marsha Gilbert and school board member Bob Gin to request that Schofield lift the censorship ban, to which administrators replied that they were “never” censored in the first place. Gin confirmed that the district does not think the students were censored, but failed to comment further.
Source: Pasadena Star-News, 6/5/15, By Courtney Tompkins
[Editor’s Note: ACLU-SoCal’s letter states in part:
If what I have learned is true – and I have no reason to doubt the sources of this information – then Dr. Schofield blatantly violated the rights of the student newpaper staff protected by California Education Code § 48907. That provision bars any prior restraints on student newspapers by school officials except to prevent the publication of obscene, libelous, or slanderous material. There would have been no basis for the principal to believe that a story about the non-renewal of a teacher would, or would be likely to, include such material. Thus, if Dr. Schofield did direct the paper not to publish a story on the teacher’s non-renewal, as a number of sources report, he clearly violated the law.
In November 2011, Legal Clips summarized a decision by the Iowa Court of Appeals in Lange v. Diercks holding that a school district improperly reprimanded the faculty advisor of a high school student newspaper for allowing student journalists to publish articles that district officials believed violated the limited restrictions on student speech set out in the state’s student free expression law. The appellate court rejected the school district’s argument that the state law was a codification of the student speech standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). Instead, it determined that the law was passed “for the purpose of giving students more robust free-expression rights than those articulated by the Supreme Court.”]