I know. It’s a catchy title for a blog post.
California Educational Code 48907 has to do with students’ freedom of speech rights. Here’s an excerpt: “Pupils of the public schools, including charter schools, shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press including, but not limited to, the use of bulletin boards, the distribution of printed materials or petitions, the wearing of buttons, badges, and other insignia, and the right of expression in official publications, whether or not the publications or other means of expression are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities, except that expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous.”
As a broadcasting teacher, I’m regularly having conversations with my students about what’s appropriate to report and share in a school publication (in my students’ case a weekly school news show and daily Snapchat news). Sometimes the conversations center around what type of humor is appropriate. Other times we have to talk about making sure that their coverage of an event fair is unbiased. Often, we have to simply make sure that they have checked and double-checked their facts before reporting anything. Most of the time these conversations are quick and easy and over the course of a term, they start to develop a decent filter around what stories to follow and how to report them well.
This particular section of Ed Code (section 48907) has only come up once with my students. It was my first year of teaching and a group of students created a public service announcement about the dangers of teenage drinking. The piece was creative, shot well, and emotionally appealing. It did have some implied sex in it and I felt unsure about how well it would be received by our community. I ran it by one of my administrators at the time before it aired in our weekly news show and she asked me to hold off on showing it until she could have a conversation with my news team. Some of my students were upset when they first heard and one even pulled out this particular section of Ed Code.
This administrator handled it in an excellent way. She came and met with this group of students during class. She started by acknowledging how great she thought the piece was and asking them several questions about the planning and shooting of it. She already had developed a great relationship with a few of the students and they softened to her right away. She mentioned a few reasons that she thought the school news show wasn’t the best avenue for this particular PSA and then suggested a few other ways that it might be shown. Ultimately, instead of showing in the weekly news show, the PSA was shown to freshman health classes as part of their curriculum as well as to students all throughout the county through a connection with a local youth commission.
Problem averted with a little administrator relational genius.
An issue related to the same section of Ed Code came up at a local high school a few weeks ago, as a teacher was arrested on campus and charged with two misdemeanors. The journalism program reported on the story as did a few local professional news outlets. The journalism students got quite a bit of push-back on social media as the teacher who was arrested was well-liked by many on campus.
In a conversation with some fellow educators around this issue, some key principles came to light:
- Administration needs to protect students’ free speech rights.
- Just like in anything – Relationships matter. An administrator should work hard to develop strong relationships with media/journalism teachers.
- Students have public access just like professional journalists do. Anything done as a public employee (on school email, for example) can be requested by anybody (even students) at any time.
- Staff should be aware of this “public access” and be trained on the importance of discretion.
- Administrators have lost their jobs for censorship – instead of censoring, admin should seek to work through free speech issues with students and staff.
- Administrators should work with student journalists and broadcasters, not against them.