The website of the Student Education Reporter Program.

Sacramento School Beat

Sacramento School Beat

Sacramento School Beat

About

SacSchoolsBeat.com is the website of the Student Education Reporter program, an effort funded by the Sacramento County Office of Education. This program trains Sacramento County high school students to become education reporters for their schools and districts to help compensate for the current shortage of professional education reporters and subsequent lack of coverage of schools and education in the region.

Student reporters produce a minimum of one story a month throughout the academic year that are accepted for publication. The student reporters are paid a $1200 stipend each academic year they work.

Each student reporter works with a writing coach (a professional journalist or educator who act as coach, mentor, instructor and editor) throughout the year. All stories produced by students are provided free to local professional media outlets. The goal of this program is to increase media coverage of local Sacramento County schools and districts to benefit the students, the parents and educators.

If you would like to receive content from Sacramento School Beat, please contact us.

Karl Grubaugh, Writing Coach

Karl Grubaugh is a writing coach with the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative. He edits stories produced by students for publication on SacSchoolBeat.org, the initiative’s news website that covers schools and districts across Sacramento County. Grubaugh, who holds an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri, retired in 2020 after a nearly 40-year career teaching journalism and social studies in K-12 and college classrooms. He also has nearly four decades of  journalism experience, including almost 20 years as an on-call copy editor at the Sacramento Bee. He was named the National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2008 by the Dow Jones News Fund.

[email protected]

Tom Dresslar, Copy Editor

Tom received his degree in journalism from Cal State, Sacramento in 1983. From 1985-87, he was editor of the Placer Herald, a weekly newspaper that served communities in Placer County. He also worked as a reporter and photographer. Subsequently he became Capitol Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Daily Journal in 1987, and served in that post for 13 years. At the Daily Journal, the nation’s leading legal community newspaper, Tom covered the California Legislature, State government and State courts.

Tom was hired as a staff investigator for the California Assembly, first in the Speaker’s Office of Oversight, and then for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. In his two years in the post, Tom worked with other staff to investigate corruption at the California Department of Insurance, market manipulation and price gouging by energy companies, and misconduct related to a State-government technology contract awarded to Oracle. In 2002, Tom left the Assembly to work as a press secretary for the California Attorney General. In 2008, Tom became communications director to the California State Treasurer and was later hired as communications director for the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation. He served in that position until September 2018.

[email protected]

Steve O’Donoghue, Coordinator/Writing Coach

Steve taught journalism, social studies and English in high school in Oakland Unified School District for 33 years where for 18 years he also ran The Media Academy, a journalism magnet program, at Fremont High School. Subsequently he worked for the Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University and then began establishing city and countywide journalism programs in Oakland, Contra Costa, Sacramento and Chico with foundation grants and support from county offices of education.

Steve was a long time activist in the Journalism Education Association and Journalism Education Association Northern California.. He was named the National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year in 1990 by the Dow Jones News Fund.

[email protected]

Diana Lambert, EdSource.org, Consultant

Diana is a veteran education reporter who has worked for the Sacramento Bee and other professional outlets before moving to EdSource.org. She advisers the program on education issues and helps critique student work in order to help us move students towards professional journalism standards of writing and reporting.

[email protected]

 

2022-23 Student Education Reporters

  • Hadia Ahmad, Natomas Pacific Pathways Preparatory
  • Mariem Braiki, Cottonwood High School
  • Rishi Upadhyay, Mira Loma High Schoolooll
  • Joshua Cullers, Galt High School
  • Kennedy O’Gilvie Joplin, C. K. McClatchy High School
  • Samantha Rickards, St. Francis High School
  • Kay Stout, Cordova High School
  • Savannah Haile, Pleasant Grove High School
  • Maxim Russo, Cordova High School
  • Saffiya Sheik, Horizon Charter School
  • Olivia Gibson, Pleasant Grove High School
  • Jordan Hanson, Consumnes Oaks High School
  • Parneet Kaur, Pleasant Grove High School
  • Hailey Luistro John F. Kennedy High School
  • Lillian Thornton, Umoja International Academy
  • Benjamin Lopez, Inderkum High School
  • Olivia Ming, Inderkum High School
  • River Poletti, Umoja International Academy
  • Hanna Yu, West Campus High School

 

Society of Professional Journalism

Our youth journalism program adheres to the four principles of ethical journalism as described by the Society of Professional Journalism:

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Special consideration for youth journalism

While professional journalists are expected to maintain strict objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, high school journalism operates within a different context. Transparency about potential biases or conflict of interest is still important, and we ask our student journalists to disclose their involvement in a particular topic or event to maintain transparency and accountability; then we discuss with them their ability to maintain objectivity in their reporting. We believe that reporting occasionally on topics in which they participate provides students with an opportunity to learn about ethical journalism practices, including how to navigate potential conflicts of interest and maintain journalistic integrity. We ask them to minimize their involvement in such instances and avoid active participation. 

We are a member of the Journalism Education Association.

We also adhere to the state guidelines for student publications as summarized in California Education Codes sections 48907 and 48950. Here is a guide to their strictures from the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

A Guide to California’s Student Press Freedom Laws

Since 1977, California has adopted several laws to protect the press freedom of California’s student journalists at all levels of education and in public and private schools. The laws say that student media cannot be censored by school officials, except in certain very narrow circumstances, and that advisers cannot be penalized for refusing to infringe on their student’s press rights.

This brochure, which was last updated in August 2023, provides information about the laws and their impacts on student journalists, advisers and school officials. It is not exhaustive and should not be considered a substitute for legal advice. If you have specific questions about the law, please contact the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp.

Jump to:
• About the Student Press Law Center
 Executive Summary
• Public School Students
• Private and Independent School Students
• College and University Students
• Advisers
• School officials
• Resources

About the Student Press Law Center

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is an independent, non-partisan 501c(3) which works at the intersection of law, journalism and education to promote, support and defend the First Amendment and press freedom rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college level. The SPLC uses the law to help students of all ages meaningfully participate in civic life and learn essential skills, ethics and values through the vehicle of journalism. The SPLC provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them. For more information, visit www.splc.org or contact our legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp

Executive Summary

Details about the laws and their protections for student journalists and advisers are enclosed within. To summarize, the law says:

  • Public school student editors determine the news, editorial, and feature content of school-sponsored media.
  • Public school officials may only restrict school-sponsored media that:
    • Is obscene, libelous or slanderous; or
    • So incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.
  • Private school and public or private higher education students cannot be penalized for student expression that would be protected by the First Amendment if made off campus. Religious private schools can discipline students for speech not consistent with the school’s religious tenets.
  • Prior restraint of lawful student speech is prohibited.
  • Advisers cannot be penalized for refusing to censor, interfere with or overrule student decisions relating to lawful school-sponsored media.
  • Public school officials must tell students in advance their reason for censoring student media.
  • Every school district, governing body, or other school board must have a written publications policy, which cannot be stricter than the law.

Other laws may also protect your speech from censorship. Contact the Student Press Law Center’s free legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/ if you are or believe you may be receiving pressure to cut, edit, or amend your student media.

Calls to the legal hotline are confidential unless and until you approve otherwise.

Public School Students

CA EDC 48907

Summary

The law protects the press freedom of California’s public school student journalists. The law says that student media cannot be censored by school officials, except in certain very narrow circumstances, and that advisers cannot be penalized for refusing to infringe on their students’ press rights.

School-sponsored media

The law protects from censorship any expression by students, including in official school-sponsored publications. This includes newspapers, yearbooks, broadcast channels, audio or video programs, literary magazines, and other forms of media that may evolve in the future.

School-sponsored media does not include projects you do just for class, your personal social media (which may be protected by other laws or court decisions), or anything you distribute to the student body on your own time without an adviser involved.

Media content

Student editors are responsible for “assigning and editing the news, editorial and feature content” of school-sponsored media. While your adviser may make suggestions and offer feedback, you make the final decision about what is, and what is not, included. This also means that you are responsible for the final product, including any praise, criticisms, or (in very rare circumstances) any potential lawsuits.

Censorship

Censorship can take many forms, but in general it is any action that is meant to stop, dissuade, or discourage you from producing or distributing student media. Sometimes it is overt (“you may not publish this”), but sometimes there are more subtle forms of censorship. This can include, but is not limited to, requiring that a story be withheld or changed, “reviewing” a student piece until the publication deadline has passed, threats to change your grades unless some aspect of a piece is changed, outright or suggested cuts to your student media program’s funding following a controversial piece, reassignment of your adviser, or the disappearance/destruction of student media once you have distributed it. If you believe you have experienced or are at risk of censorship, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

If a school official believes your media contains unprotected speech, they are required to justify their decision to you before they censor your work. When possible, get this justification in writing. At the very least, write down all the details as soon as you can, along with the date and time of any conversations.

Prior restraint and prior review

Prior restraint is when a school official tells you that you cannot publish a story or takes action to prevent you from doing so. The law is clear that they cannot do this unless your media includes the unprotected speech detailed below. If school officials do engage in prior restraint, they must justify their actions to you before they restrain your work.

School officials sometimes engage in prior review, which is where they look at student media before it is distributed. If your school officials engage in prior review and hold your student media for more than 72 hours, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Unprotected speech

The law does allow for school officials to restrict some student media, just as you can be penalized for saying certain things in class.

School officials may only prohibit student media that:

  • Is obscene, libelous or slanderous; or
  • So incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

If content in your media does not fall into one of these categories or is not clearly prohibited by some other law, school officials – including your principal or your adviser – cannot stop you from producing or distributing it. They also cannot penalize you or your student media adviser for your decision to produce or distribute the media.

Following sound journalism practices and ethics will help ensure your work does not meet any of these criteria. If you are concerned that your work falls into one of these categories, you should talk with your adviser, the Student Press Law Center, or other legal counsel. You can do this at any point in the research, production or distribution process.

School policy

Every school district, charter school board or county board of education is required to have a written publications code, which cannot restrict your speech further than this law allows. These policies are a public record. If you cannot find the policy or it does not match what is described in this brochure, contact the Student Press Law Center.

If you’ve been censored

If you believe or suspect that you have been censored or are about to be censored, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline as soon as possible at splc.org/legalhelp/. There are a range of options available to you. Whenever possible, write down the dates, times and description of events as they happen to help keep your facts in order and establish a timeline.

FAQs

What is libel? What is slander?

Libel is the publication of false statements of fact that seriously harm a person’s reputation. Slander is the speaking of false statements of fact that seriously harm a person’s reputation. If a statement is true, it cannot be libelous or slanderous, no matter how harmful it is to the person’s reputation.

What is a “substantial disruption”?

A substantial disruption is anything that could so interfere with the school day as to make normal school activities nearly impossible. This is decided on a case-by-case basis, but could include walkouts, fights, interruptions to class, or harassment of teachers or students. This “substantial disruption” standard was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Tinker vs. Des Moines decision many years ago, so your administrators and advisers have plenty of practice applying it to student speech. Remember, the law does not prohibit you from reporting on these things, just from inciting them.

Isn’t freedom of the press protected by the First Amendment?

Yes, but the U.S. Supreme Court has given public schools some authority to restrict the activities of students. A U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District allows school officials to restrict student speech in certain narrow circumstances (including if it would cause a “material disruption” in the school community or could be libelous or slanderous). Another Supreme Court decision known as Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier allowed schools broader authority to censor student journalist’s speech. However, California’s law – which was passed before Hazelwood was decided – ensures you have stronger press rights than students in many other states.

If my school is sued for libel because of content in our student media, who is responsible?

You. However, libel lawsuits against high school journalists are exceptionally rare. (In fact, when this brochure went to press, there had not been a single reported case in the U.S. finding a school district liable for work published by its student media.) As long as you are following standard journalistic practices you should not have to worry.

Can my adviser tell me there are problems with my article?

Your adviser may teach you English and journalism standards, and may give you feedback regarding your article including questioning if something you have written is untruthful or ensuring you are prepared for any controversy.

How do I know if I’m being censored?

If nobody has expressly told you “don’t publish this,” it can be easy to tell yourself you’re not being censored or that you are overreacting. Talk with your adviser, parents and the SPLC if you suspect you are receiving any pressure to hold or edit material that does not contain unprotected speech.

Can my principal ask to review something before we distribute it?

This is called “prior review,” and while it’s not expressly prohibited by this law there is certainly no need for your principal to engage in it unless they have reason to believe you are engaging in unprotected speech. In fact, the practice of mandatory prior review by administrators has been roundly condemned by every major journalism education group in the country as the wrong way to teach young journalists. If your principal asks to review your materials before publication, ask if there is anything they are concerned about. If your principal does engage in prior review and holds your work for more than 72 hours, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp/.

What if my adviser or principal says something is unprotected and I disagree?

They should be able to tell you exactly why it is unprotected, including pointing to the specific law or rule you are violating or giving you a clear reason why they believe your work presents a substantial disruption. If they do not give you this information within 72 hours or you disagree with their decision, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Private and Independent School Students

CA EDC 48950

Summary

The law, also commonly referred to as the “Leonard Law,” prohibits punishing students at private secondary schools for expression made on- or off-campus that would be protected by the First Amendment if made off-campus. The law also protects from retaliation school employees who support or refuse to infringe upon students’ free expression.

School-sponsored media

The law applies to all expression made by high school students at private secondary schools. This includes in school-sponsored media such as yearbooks, newspapers, literary magazines, and other forms of media that may arise in the future.

First Amendment

In general, private schools are not subject to the limitations of the First Amendment. However, California law says that high school students at private secondary schools cannot be disciplined solely for engaging in speech that would be protected by the First Amendment if made off-campus.

Censorship

Censorship can take many forms, but in general it is any action that is meant to stop, dissuade, or discourage you from producing or distributing student media. Sometimes it is overt (“you may not publish this”) but sometimes there are more subtle forms of censorship. This can include, but is not limited to, strong suggestions that a story be withheld or changed, “reviewing” a student piece until the publication deadline has passed, threats to change your grades unless some aspect of a piece is changed, outright or suggested cuts to your student media program’s funding following a controversial piece, reassignment of your adviser, or the disappearance/destruction of student media once you have distributed it. If you believe you have experienced or are at risk of censorship, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Unprotected speech

The law does allow your school to place “reasonable” limits on when, where and how you can make your expression, and can discipline you for “harassment, threats, or intimidation, unless constitutionally protected.” Further, if your school is controlled by a religious organization, they can discipline you for speech that “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

Following sound journalism practices and ethics will help ensure your work does not meet any of these criteria. If you are concerned that your work falls into one of these categories, you should talk with your adviser, the Student Press Law Center, or other legal counsel. You can do this at any point in the research, production or distribution process.

School policy

Your school can adopt a written student free expression policy that could afford you more specific student press rights than what the law currently requires. A model affirmation, developed with the Student Press Law Center, is available via the Private Schools Journalism Association, ps-ja.com.

If you’ve been censored or disciplined

If you believe or suspect that you have been censored or are about to be censored, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline as soon as possible at splc.org/legalhelp/. There are a range of options available to you, including court intervention. Whenever possible, write down the dates, times and description of events as they happen to help keep your facts in order and establish a timeline.

FAQs

Isn’t freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment?

Because private schools are not government institutions, they are not subject to the First Amendment in the same way public schools are. California is one of the only states to extend free expression protections to students at private and independent schools.

How do I know if I’m being censored?

If nobody has expressly told you “don’t publish this,” it can be easy to tell yourself you’re not being censored or that you are overreacting. Talk with your adviser, parents and the SPLC if you suspect you are receiving any pressure to hold or edit material that does not contain unprotected speech.

Can my principal ask to review something before we distribute it?

This is called “prior review,” and while it’s not expressly prohibited by this law there is certainly no need for your principal to engage in it unless they have reason to believe you are engaging in unprotected speech. In fact, the practice of mandatory prior review by administrators has been roundly condemned by every major journalism education group in the country as the wrong way to teach young journalists. If your principal asks to review your materials before publication, ask if there is anything they are concerned about. If your principal does engage in prior review and holds your work for more than 72 hours, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp/.

College and University Students

CA EDC 66301, 76120 & 94367

Summary

In addition to the existing strong legal protections afforded public college students by the federal First Amendment, three state laws also protect the press freedom of higher education student journalists, including, in some cases, private school students. The law says that students cannot be disciplined for expression that is protected by the First Amendment off-campus, with some narrow exceptions, and that advisers cannot be penalized for refusing to infringe on their students’ press rights.

School-sponsored media

The law applies to all expression made by students at public and private colleges and universities. This includes in school-sponsored media such as yearbooks, newspapers, literary magazines, and other forms of media that may arise in the future

Censorship

Censorship can take many forms, but in general it is any action that is meant to stop, dissuade, or discourage you from producing or distributing student media. Sometimes it is overt (“you may not publish this”) but sometimes there are more subtle forms of censorship. This can include, but is not limited to, requiring that a story be withheld or changed, “reviewing” a student piece until the publication deadline has passed, threats to change your grades unless some aspect of a piece is changed, outright or suggested cuts to your student media program’s funding following a controversial piece, reassignment of your adviser, or the disappearance/destruction of student media once you have distributed it. If you believe you have experienced or are at risk of censorship, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Unprotected speech

In general, the courts have held that public college and university student journalists cannot be censored by school officials. However, it still happens. This law makes clear that school officials may only limit the speech of college students in very specific circumstances.

The law also makes clear that no private or public higher education student can be disciplined for expression that would be protected by the First Amendment off-campus, unless that expression contains harassment, threats or intimidation.

There are a few exceptions:

  • Private schools that are controlled by religious organizations can restrict expression that “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”
  • Expression by students at community colleges can be restricted if it is “obscene, libelous or slanderous” or “so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts” on school premises, or the violation of school regulations, or a substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

If your media content does not fall into one of those categories or is not clearly prohibited by some other law, school officials cannot penalize you for it. If you are at a public school, they also cannot penalize your student media adviser for supporting or refusing to infringe upon your rights. If your student media is censored, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Following sound journalism practices and ethics will help ensure your work does not meet any of these criteria. If you are concerned that your work falls into one of these categories, you should talk with your adviser, the Student Press Law Center, or other legal counsel. You can do this at any point in the research, production or distribution process.

Prior restraint and prior review

Prior restraint is when a school official tells you that you cannot publish a story or takes action to prevent you from doing so. Prior restraint is limited by the First Amendment and these laws.

School officials sometimes engage in prior review, which is where they look at school-sponsored media before it is distributed. Unlike at the high school level, courts have ruled that the First Amendment prohibits mandatory prior review of public college student media.

School policy

Every community college district governing board is required to have a written policy for the exercise of your free expression. The policy cannot restrict your speech further than this law allows.

A policy can be helpful in making sure everyone has the same understanding and expectation of the student media program. Policies made by public schools are a public record. If you cannot find the policy or it does not match what is described in this brochure, contact the Student Press Law Center.

Private schools can also adopt a written student free expression policy that could afford you more specific student press rights than what the law currently requires. A model affirmation, developed with the Student Press Law Center, is available via the Private Schools Journalism Association, ps-ja.com.

If you’ve been censored

If you believe or suspect that you have been censored or are about to be censored, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline as soon as possible at splc.org/legalhelp/. There are a range of options available to you. Whenever possible, write down the dates, times and description of events as they happen to help keep your facts in order and establish a timeline.

FAQs

Can my adviser tell me there are problems with my article?

Your adviser can teach you English and journalism standards, and may give you feedback regarding your article including questioning if something you have written is untrue or ensuring you are prepared for any resulting controversy. Unless your work contains unprotected content, they cannot stop you from moving forward with the piece.

How do I know if I’m being censored?

If nobody has expressly told you “don’t publish this,” it can be easy to tell yourself you’re not being censored or are overreacting. Talk with your adviser and the SPLC if you suspect you are receiving any pressure not to put out material that does not contain unprotected speech.

What is a “material and substantial disruption?”

A substantial disruption is anything that could so interfere with the school environment as to make normal school activities impossible. This is decided on a case-by-case basis, but could include walkouts, fights, interruptions to class, or harassment of teachers or students. Remember, the law does not prohibit you from reporting on these things, just from inciting them.

If my school is sued for libel because of the content of our student media, who is responsible?

You. However, libel lawsuits against student journalists are very rare. As long as you are following journalistic standards and ethics, you should not encounter a problem.

Can our school administration ask to review something before we distribute it?

They can ask, but you are not required to let them review it. This often happens when a university public relations official wants to “check in” on a story. If school officials, including the public relations department, ask to review your work, ask if there is anything they are concerned about before deciding whether or not to grant permission for them to see it. If you feel pressured to turn over your work, this is censorship and you should contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Advisers

CA EDC 48907 (public school), 48950 (public school), 66301 (public colleges and universities)

Summary

The law protects public high school and public higher education student media advisers from retaliation for refusing to infringe upon your students’ rights. Advisers cannot be “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for protecting a student journalist or refusing to infringe on student journalists’ lawful speech.

Media content

Students in private secondary schools and public higher education are protected from disciplinary action for any expression, including in student media, that would not violate the First Amendment off-campus.

Public elementary and secondary school student editors “determine the news, editorial and feature content” of official school publications.

While advisers may make suggestions and offer feedback, they cannot sway or overrule the students’ final decisions about what is, and what is not, included in student media.

Adviser protection

Often, advisers report that censorship of school-sponsored media means professional consequences for them instead of academic ones for the student. Under California law, no public school or public higher education employee can be “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for refusing to overrule, suppress or interfere with lawful student expression.

Unprotected speech

The law does allow for school officials to restrict student media content in some narrow circumstances.

Student media is not protected in the elementary and secondary schools if it:

  • Is obscene, libelous or slanderous; or
  • So incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

Student media is not protected in the community colleges if it:

  • Is obscene, libelous or slanderous; or
  • So incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on community college premises, or the violation of lawful community college regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the community college.

Unless the student media meets these criteria, the media cannot be restricted and you cannot be penalized for refusing to restrict it. If the student has a strong understanding of sound journalism practices and ethics, their work is unlikely to fall into any of these criteria.

Even if a student’s speech falls into one of these categories, it may be protected by the First Amendment or other laws. Just because this law says your speech can be censored for these reasons does not mean it should. If your student media is censored, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

Censorship and retaliation

Censorship can take many forms, but in general it is any action that is meant to stop, dissuade, or discourage a student from producing or distributing student media. This can include, but is not limited to, strong suggestions that a story be withheld or changed, “reviewing” a student piece until the publication deadline has passed, threats to change a student’s grades unless an aspect of a student media piece is changed, or the disappearance/destruction of student media once it has been distributed.

Often, advisers report that the censorship took the form of professional consequences for them instead of academic ones for the student. This has included loss of funding for the student media program, adviser reassignment, meetings or phone calls with administrators in which the administration’s dislike of a story is the main topic, or pressure from other teachers and school employees. These actions are prohibited under the law. If you believe you have experienced or are at risk of retaliation, contact the SPLC’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalhelp/.

If your student has been censored or you have been retaliated against

Contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp. There are a range of options available to you.

FAQs

Can I suggest my students not run an article? What if my student produces something I suspect will be disruptive?

You can share your concerns with your students, but unless the work includes unprotected speech, the decision is ultimately theirs. If you believe your student is planning to distribute work which meets the criteria for unprotected speech, you should be as clear as possible with them about the concerns and the reasons why you believe their work is not protected by law.

I work at a private school. Am I protected? 

The law does not expressly protect you at this time. However, your speech may still be protected by law. Contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp/ for more information.

What do I do if the administration tells me to edit or stop something from being distributed?

Contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp/.

School Officials

CA EDC 48907 (public school), 48950 (public and private schools), 66301 (public colleges and universities), 76120 (public community colleges), 94367 (private colleges and universities)

Summary

The law says that student journalists cannot be penalized for their work except in certain specific circumstances. The law also prohibits terminating or otherwise disciplining public school employees who refuse to infringe upon student press rights.

Media content

Students in private secondary schools and public or private higher education are protected from disciplinary action for any expression that would not violate the First Amendment off-campus.

Public elementary and secondary school student editors “determine the news, editorial and feature content” of official school publications.

Prior restraint and prior review

Prior restraint is when a school official tells a student journalist they cannot publish a story, or takes any action to prevent the student journalist from doing so. Prior restraint is limited by the First Amendment.

Prior review is when a school official reads the content of school-sponsored media before it is published or distributed. The practice of mandatory prior review has been roundly condemned by nearly every major journalism education group in the country as the wrong way to teach young journalists. It has been explicitly outlawed in the public college or university setting. Prior review should be avoided unless there are specific, articulable concerns that the school-sponsored media contains unprotected speech.

Unprotected speech

The law does allow for school officials to restrict student media content in some narrow circumstances.

Student media is not protected in public schools if it:

  • Is obscene, libelous or slanderous; or
  • So incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

Student media is not protected in the community colleges if it:

  • Is obscene, libelous or slanderous; or
  • So incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on community college premises, or the violation of lawful community college regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the community college.

Students attending a religious secondary school can be disciplined for expression that would violate the religious tenets of the school.

Unless the student media meets these criteria or is clearly prohibited by some other law, the media cannot be restricted and advisers cannot be penalized for refusing to restrict it.

Material and substantial disruption

A substantial disruption is anything that could so interfere with the school day as to make school activities nearly impossible. The material and substantial disruption exemption applies only if a student journalist is inciting the disruption; reporting on a controversial topic is itself not sufficient cause for restricting student speech. These are taken on a case-by-case basis, but there should be an articulable risk of disruption, informed by specific facts, including past history at the school and current events influencing student behavior.

Whenever a risk of material and substantial disruption occurs, school officials should consider all other avenues of alleviating this disruption before resorting to censorship. School officials are required to inform student journalists before the censorship occurs why the censorship is necessary and give students the timely opportunity to appeal.

Types of censorship

Censorship can take many forms, but in general it is any action that is meant to stop, dissuade, or urge a student journalist not to produce or distribute student media. While some students have been explicitly told not to publish a particular story, others have faced more subtle forms of censorship. This can include, but is not limited to, requiring that a story be withheld or changed, “reviewing” a student piece until the publication deadline has passed, threats to change a student’s grades, remove you from your position or otherwise punish you certain aspects of a piece are changed, outright or suggested cuts to the student media program’s funding following a controversial piece, reassignment of the student media adviser, or the disappearance/destruction of student media once it has been distributed.

Adviser protection

Often, advisers report that the censorship took the form of professional consequences for them instead of academic ones for the student. This has included loss of funding for the class or club, adviser reassignment, meetings or phone calls with administrators in which the administration’s dislike of a story is the main topic, or pressure from other teachers and coaches. All of these actions are prohibited under the law, which expressly states that no public school employee may be “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” solely for protecting or refusing to infringe upon a student journalist who is not engaging in unprotected speech.

Student media policy

Each school district, charter school and community college district board is required to adopt a written policy for the free speech and free press of their students. This policy cannot restrict student journalists’ speech further than this law allows. A clear policy can be helpful in making sure everyone has the same understanding and expectation of the student media program. A model policy is available via the Student Press Law Center.

If a student is censored or adviser is unlawfully retaliated against

They have a range of legal options available to them.

FAQs

Doesn’t Hazelwood give school administrators the right to restrict student media?

The federal First Amendment provides a “floor” of federal legal protections. States cannot pass laws that provide less protection than that required by the First Amendment, but they can always extend more protections to their residents. California was the first state to extend strong state protections to student media, predating and providing more concrete guidance to schools than that put forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision.

What do I tell angry parents when a student writes a controversial article?

The law makes clear that student journalists alone determine the content of school-sponsored media and that such media is not an expression of school policy. Parents certainly have the option of registering their opinion with the student editor.

If my school is sued for libel or slander, who is responsible?

The student journalist. However, lawsuits against student journalists are exceedingly rare.  (In fact, as of when this brochure went to press, there had not been a single officially reported case in the U.S. finding a school district liable for work published by its high school student media.)

Journalism standards and ethics prevent libel and slander. Schools should ensure that advisers and student journalists have adequate training and appropriate resources to thoroughly educate students on media law and journalistic ethics. Students can also reach out to the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline for more guidance on libel and slander.

If student journalists report on rumors of a walkout, does that constitute a material and substantial disruption?

If they are simply reporting on information, no. The disruption already exists. If they are calling for a walkout and there is a history of such walkouts proving irreparably disruptive to the school, maybe. However, before resorting to the censorship of a student journalist you should consider whether the same call is already reaching students through social media and whether the work by the student journalist offers school officials an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the student body about their concerns.

Can I talk to a student journalist about my concerns relating to their article?

You can certainly help student journalists have as many facts as possible. Unless the media contains unprotected speech, you cannot require a student journalist pull a story.

How can I get more information about the law and our rights and responsibilities?

Contact the SPLC’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalhelp.

Resources

For more information or assistance on California’s student free expression laws, student press freedom, or other issues regarding student media, please contact:

 

Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Committee

 

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