In censorship battles, students have the power

By Mike Hiestand

When student media advisers call to relate a censorship problem one of my standard bits of advice is that they hang up.

Well, not quite. I want some details of what’s happened. I also want to know about the journalism program and its history. But after I thank the adviser for the heads-up and provide some preliminary thoughts about how I think the law might stack up, I often tell them that the most effective thing they can do is quietly step aside, give the editor my name and number and turn the reins of any censorship fight over to their students.

The most important reason for this is that advisers – unlike students – are employees of the school district. And as employees, advisers are constrained in ways – and at risk in ways – that students are not.

For that reason, it’s important that advisers explain to their students early on the difficult position in which they operate. Advisers are rooting for their students, of course, but they are also school employees. Accordingly, advisers should put their student staff on notice that once a decision is made to contest an act of administrative censorship, they, the students, must be willing to take the leadership role. It is a student publication, after all. And it is their rights – not the adviser’s – that are at stake. If a fight is to be fought over student media, students must be on the front lines.

There is another reason that I insist on student involvement. Because of their relative freedoms, students are typically a more potent adversary. A principal can order an adviser to back away from a controversial story and – though the law in this area can be complicated – they can expect their order generally to be followed (while the adviser carefully documents everything along the way). Such administrative authority clearly does not extend over students. For that reason, it is important that administrators understand early on that if they unduly restrict student media they will be up against committed students, knowledgeable about their legal rights, not simply an employee that they can threaten with charges of insubordination.

For similar reasons, it is also important that students and their advisers put some distance between themselves. Towards that end, I frequently urge advisers to let me be the one to help their students devise a “game plan” for contesting administrative foul play. The Student Press Law Center’s legal staff is in a much better position to be the “troublemaker” that apprises students of their rights, helps them challenge a principal’s censorship and provides suggestions for making sure that administrators are held fully accountable for their actions. It also allows advisers to maintain “plausible deniability” when confronted by a school official angered by the headaches being caused by his or her students. Students should make clear that they are acting on their own and that neither school officials – nor their adviser – have the ability to stop them from standing up for their rights. Bullying an employee is one thing; confronting students – and their outside supporters – is often more of a fight than school officials want to bite off.

Another reason for allowing students to take the lead is that advisers’ tongues are often tied – or should be. In recent years, courts have not been especially protective of the right of employees to bad mouth their employers – even when it’s deserved. Students, on the other hand, can write and distribute press releases, call the TV stations, talk to reporters and lawyers, address the school board, contact parent groups and other support organizations. In my experience, having students speak for themselves – particularly when they have thought through their reasons for contesting the administrative action and can compellingly articulate their position – is much more effective than having adults banter back and forth on their behalf.

Admittedly, stepping aside and keeping quiet is often easier said than done. Censorship flies in the face of everything that journalists and journalism educators stand for. It typically occurs in a highly charged atmosphere and is tough to stomach. Of course, an adviser must ultimately follow his or her conscience. Sometimes the acts of administrators are so egregious or unlawful that one must take a stand. But generally employees must do as they are told. Their only other options are to quit, challenge the administrative action through appropriate channels or be fired. A charge of insubordination – which allows administrators to obscure a “pure” First Amendment battle with complicated employment law issues – rarely helps matters. If an adviser believes that their boss’s actions have crossed the line they should contact their union, file a formal grievance or seek independent legal counsel. In most cases, however, an adviser helps the most when they have equipped their students with the tools they need to stand up for themselves – and then lets them do so.