On January 6, 2009, a new California law that strengthens First Amendment protections for high school and college newspapers went into effect. The law in California previously protected students from punishment for articles in newspapers, but didn’t protect the school paper advisors. According to a statement in the LA Times from a lobbyist for the bill, “[i]n the last three years, at least 15 high school journalism advisors have lost their jobs or been reassigned by administrators who perceived stories as critical.”
One of the cases often cited by supporters involved Janet Ewell, who oversaw an award-winning journalism program at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove. She lost her advisor job in 2002 after her students wrote editorials criticizing filthy bathrooms and bad cafeteria food.
Ewell, now an English teacher at the school, said Saturday that she sympathized with school administrators, many of whom are under pressure to make their schools look good. “They don’t want any bump in their public relations image,” she said.
But the bottom line, Ewell said, is that student newspapers are not publicity newsletters for principals. And she hopes the new law will ensure that stories are published, regardless of how they may be perceived. “It’s wonderful to see that people care about 1st Amendment rights and care about protecting students’ rights,” she said.