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As a school journalism advisor, the principal told me to stop a student from publishing an article. I know the student has the right to publish the article. What should I do?

Question | Student Press
One of my journalism students wrote a great article about the school district’s involvement in a public health lawsuit. The school principal instructed me to prevent the article from being published in the school newspaper because it made the school look bad. I told the principal that it is typical for a journalism advisor to have a hands-off approach in determining what gets published. The principal stopped the article from being published himself. I know that the student has the right to publish the article, but I am afraid to support her because I could lose my job. Is there anything I can do?

It is likely that you are correct in thinking the student has a right to publish the article, *applause.* But, the free speech rights of public school students can be vastly different from the rights of journalism faculty advisors. Public schools will often try to use journalism faculty advisors to censor student publications because the publication makes the school look bad, putting the faculty advisor in an awkward position. Should you listen to the directives of the school and censor the publication, or do you support the student publication in the fight against censorship? The first step to understanding your First Amendment rights as a journalism faculty advisor and what you can do to support your students is to understand what kind of forum the publication falls under. (Look below to the "Types of Forum" chart).

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A student publication, such as a public school newspaper could fall under any of these forums. Click here for a list of questions to help determine if the student publication is a limited-public forum. The more factors on the list that identify the school newspaper as a limited public forum, the less likely it is that a principal can censor a student story. 

What Free Speech Rights Does a Journalism Faculty Advisor Have?

The type of forum that the student publication falls under will determine the full extent of student speech and press rights afforded, and whether or not there is a good basis to legally fight against the censorship. Your First Amendment rights as a journalism faculty advisor only extend to situations where you speak as a private citizen on matters of public concern, not on behalf of your professional duties. Communication made inside the classroom is typically considered on behalf of the school and communication made outside the classroom will also be on behalf of the school if made in accordance with your professional duties and the speech substantially affects the school. Note that advisors at private school will likely have even less First Amendment rights since private schools don't have to follow the Constitution like public schools do.

As a journalism faculty advisor, you actually waive some of your First Amendment rights when you sign your contract with the public school. Even where there is no specific clause that states you are waiving some rights, a waiver is implied because you are technically a government employee. Even if you have a Journalism Certificate, you are not entitled to extra protections, unless your contract directly says otherwise.

If a student publication is censored by a public school and you disagree with that decision and continue to support the students’ speech and press rights, you could be cited for insubordination by the school administration and could face consequences. Instead, this is what you should (or should not) do:

  • Do not encourage students to fight back on the censorship; do not coach the students on what to do; do not get involved in the censorship fight
  • Ask the administration for its official position on the censorship of the student speech, including the reasons for the censorship
  • Bring a colleague to any meetings you may have with administration and factually summarize, in writing, those meetings, date it, and keep a paper trail
  • REMIND, not tell, students to contact an organization to be a legal advisor to discuss their free speech rights

Places Students can Contact

Where Can Journalism Advisors Turn to for Questions?

Have questions about free speech rights?

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