Calif. bill would protect teachers defending student speech

Monday, June 30, 2008

A bill to protect California’s teachers from retaliation for defending student speech is making its way through the Legislature. But the University of California system says it’s unlikely to obey S.B. 1370 if it passes, according to the Center for Scholastic Journalism blog from Kent State University and

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), is awaiting a vote in the Senate. After passing a different version of S.B. 1370 in April, the Senate now needs to approve an Assembly version before it can be sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his signature. An amendment to the Assembly version of the bill removed the name “Journalism Teachers’ Protection Act” to give protection to all teachers defending students’ free-speech rights, the Student Press Law Center reported.

S.B. 1370 would prohibit college and high school administrators from punishing teachers for “acting to protect” student expression protected by state law or by constitutional provisions. California’s “Leonard Laws” give students in public schools and both public and private colleges free-speech protection and freedom of the press. Although the Leonard Laws prohibit administrators from exercising prior review of student publications, they say nothing about efforts to retaliate against teachers, such as journalism advisers, who try to uphold student free speech and press.

“Allowing a school administration to censor in any way is contrary to the democratic process and the ability of a student newspaper to serve as the watchdog and bring sunshine to the actions of school administrators,” Yee said in a Q&A with J-Ideas, Ball State University’s journalism and First Amendment institute. “As long as teachers and other employees can be threatened with retaliation for protecting students’ speech rights, the speech itself is not truly protected.”

However, the University of California system, which includes 10 campuses, has the constitutional ability to refuse to adopt certain laws. California’s Donahoe Higher Education Act includes a provision that says the University of California Regents must vote on certain sections of the Education Code in order for them to apply to UC schools. Gov. Schwarzenegger serves as an ex-officio regent for the University of California.

In the letter to Yee, Happy Chastain, UC’s senior legislative director for state governmental relations, wrote, “Although the University goes great lengths to ensure academic and speaking freedoms, we must also have the right to take appropriate measures … . In order to preserve academic independence from political intrusion, it is important that the University maintain its ability to act if an instructor fails to teach course materials that have been approved by the University.”

Chastain gave the example of a math teacher allowing a student to discuss an off-topic subject for so long in class that the education of others would be disrupted and the required curriculum not fulfilled. She wrote that the university “must maintain its ability to correct situations in which … a University employee has failed to comply with academic teaching standards.” 

Existing California laws give students and faculty “substantial freedom of speech protections,” Chastain wrote.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association supports the bill, according to the CNPA Web site.