Faculty Advisers Often Face the Ax for Not Censoring High School Papers

Press Freedom Advocate Sees Rise in Censorship Complaints

Teacher helping students use computers
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At high schools across the country, many faculty advisers to student newspapers and yearbooks have been reassigned or fired for refusing to censor student publications.

So says Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student press rights. LoMonte says he's seeing more high school newspaper and yearbook advisers being sacked over censorship issues.

"Schools are getting more aggressive about driving off teachers who fail to muzzle their students adequately," LoMonte says.

Some examples:

  • The adviser to the student newspaper at Forest Grove High School in Oregon was reassigned to teach remedial reading classes after the school received a complaint about an issue that included a page listing anonymous secrets submitted by students.

  • Also in Oregon, North Douglas High School student newspaper adviser Loradona May's contract was not renewed after the student paper ran an editorial critical of the school's dress code. The school contended that the editorial violated school board policy on freedom of expression. "Oregon has state laws protecting student expression, so she was fired for complying with state law," LoMonte notes.

  • In Indiana, the Knightstown High School yearbook and newspaper adviser was fired following a controversy over including a section in the yearbook about pregnant students.

  • In Texas, the student newspaper adviser at Big Spring High School resigned under pressure after the principal pulled the last issue of the paper, which included an editorial advocating the legalization of marijuana.

Under the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, high school-sponsored publications can be censored over issues that are "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." (College newspapers, on the other hand, generally enjoy greater First Amendment protections, particularly at publicly funded schools.)

But, LoMonte says, "It's very clear (in the Texas case) that an editorial urging a change in the law is classic political speech that's protected even at a high school. If the adviser had removed that editorial he would have been breaking the law."

LoMonte says he sees an uptick in such firings at graduation time. "It's kind of seasonal. This is when yearbooks come out, when schools make plans for the fall and decide how many teachers they need and give renewal notices or not."

He adds: "What we see this time of year is a worrisome number of teachers being told they won't be back in September. It's almost always in retaliation for student speech that falls within the protection of the First Amendment."

He says with budget cuts affecting school districts nationwide, administrators are using cost-cutting measures as cover for firing student newspaper advisers, he says.

"I think the economy is providing some convenient excuses for schools to get rid of troublesome high school journalism teachers that they wanted to fire anyway," he says. "It's the easiest thing in the world to blame the economy for removing a teacher that you wanted out."

LoMonte says his group gets several thousand complaints a year about censorship at high school papers.

"But our experience is that the vast majority of high school students are too scared to complain and don't understand that they have rights," he says. "We know that if we take 1,000 complaints a year of censorship, the real number must be 10 times that."

The vast majority of complaints "are well-founded," he adds. "It's a pretty big step for a 16-year-old to call a lawyer and when they call it normally checks out."