High School Journalists In LA Learn About Censorship — From Their Own Principal
In the fall of last year, amid the statewide uncertainty of deadlines for mandatory vaccinations for public school teachers, an anti-vaccination group protested near Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. The larger school issues made the demonstration newsworthy, so journalism students at the campus covered it.
The resulting article had all the who, what, where, whens, and some additional information for context. The reporter said 240 L.A. Unified teachers had refused to be vaccinated and hadn’t shown up to work the previous month.
Their school is small, only several hundred students. One teacher at the school had opted out of vaccination and didn’t show up to work: the librarian. The article named her.
“If one person is out, all the kids know who is absent,” said Adriana Chavira, a teacher at the school who advises the student newspaper.
It was newsworthy that the librarian was gone, she said. The library closed, and the school remains without a librarian.
What happened next surprised Chavira, who worked 10 years as a reporter and has spent nearly twice as long as a teacher and journalism advisor.
The librarian emailed Chavira that her privacy had been violated and asked that her name be removed from the online article. Chavira said state free speech and press laws protected the newspaper. She forwarded the email to the students to let them know.
In February, school principal Armen Petrossian emailed a threat of disciplinary action to Chavira if she didn’t remove the librarian’s name by the next day.
“I was shocked by the situation because I’d only read about things like this happening,” said Valeria Luquin, who was the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.
She said she didn’t want to upset these “big, important” people like the principal.
“I had to get over that fear because we’re just as credible as professional journalists,” she said.
Chavira and the students stood their ground and sought help from a national group that defends student journalists from censorship. The attempt to censor the student newspaper and punish Chavira is an all-too-common situation for student journalism over the years. The situation is made more dire given the challenges reporters face nationwide to cover news.
In an email, a Los Angeles Unified School District spokesperson said administrators had no comment.
Fewer Students Understand How Democracy Relies On Free Press
The attempt to retaliate against Chavira is one of about a dozen cases of student press censorship that the Student Press Law Center is monitoring and advising now.
“This is a story that deeply impacted students, the impact of the vaccine mandate, the impact that it had on the school,” said the center’s senior legal counsel Mike Hiestand.
“Any journalist worth their salt is going to say, ‘What's going on here, our community is impacted by this,’ you're gonna dig, dig into it and figure it out and report that information out. And that's what they did,” Hiestand said.
There are regulations that prohibit medical personnel and public agencies from disclosing some private information. In a March 4, 2022 letter provided by Chavira, an L.A. Unified administrator said the librarian alleged the publishing of her name and that she hadn’t received the COVID-19 vaccine violated her HIPAA protections, a reference to the federal law that protects a patient’s health information.
The courts have been very clear that students working in student media are not school employees, or agents of the school in any way.
Hiestand said the student newspaper is an independent entity. It’s not a public agency like the school and is not bound by these rules.
“The courts have been very clear that students working in student media are not school employees, or agents of the school in any way,” he said. “They're students telling stories, providing news.”
California, he said, has more stringent laws that protect student journalists and the teachers who advise them from having to submit articles for approval from administrators and other forms of censorship, as well as retaliation against advisors.
Regardless of how clear press laws are, Hiestand is worried about the current state of student journalism in the United States. Fewer students enroll in high school journalism and fewer young people in general know the role of a free press to keep the gears of a functioning democracy moving along.
A Learning Opportunity
The school is named after Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal foreign bureau chief who was murdered by Pakistani terrorists in 2002. Pearl grew up in the San Fernando Valley.
It’s a magnet school, so the application process is competitive. The school's welcome note calls attention to "a safe, supportive learning environment in which every student benefits from rigorous academics and a focus on journalism and communications."
I found a passion for storytelling, for interviewing, for reporting, even photography.
As for Chavira, she said she’s been told that her three-day unpaid suspension will be made official in the coming week or so. She’s appealing it. And she’s resolute. The classes teach students more than just how to write; students learn critical thinking skills. Her track record with students is reflected in the awards the student newspaper has accumulated over the years.
“We really got to do a lot of interesting and impactful work,” said Itzel Luna, a 2021 Daniel Pearl High graduate who took Chavira’s classes all four years at the school.
“I found a passion for storytelling, for interviewing, for reporting, even photography,” Luna said.
Luna finished an internship on the breaking news desk at the Los Angeles Times this summer and will start her sophomore year at Stanford University later this month.
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