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High School Cracks Down On Journalism Teacher For Teaching Journalism

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Administrators put an award-winning high school teacher and newspaper adviser on leave months after students accused administrators of censoring the school newspaper from publishing a story. The teacher says she just tried to protect the students' freedom of speech rights.

Jennifer Kim had been a teacher at San Gabriel High School for almost a decade, and most recently was the adviser of the school's newspaper and yearbook staffs before she was put on administrative leave, The Pasadena Star-News reports. Although Kim didn't go into detail on why she was put on leave, she said, "I was merely enforcing (state) education code 48907, which was written to protect the work of student journalists and their advisers."

That education code she's talking about is one that protects students' freedom of speech. All of this stems from an article students tried to publish in their high school newspaper, The Matador, in May about a popular English teacher and debate coach, Andrew Nguyen, whose teaching contract was not renewed.

Students in the newspaper staff said that when they approached San Gabriel High School Principal Jim Schofield for a comment in their story, he told them and Kim that they could not publish any stories about Nguyen's dismissal.

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The Matador staff published a statement in their school newspaper on May 27, saying this violated their freedom of press rights:

The Matador views this as a clear violation of the freedom of the press under the First Amendment, as Nguyen’s dismissal is an ongoing and public incident relevant to the school. In addition, Nguyen granted permission to all interested parties to discuss the events surrounding his pending departure. We, as a newspaper, feel obligated to disclose this incident with our readers, and as a result we have decided to take more time to research the situation, pending legal counsel with a representative of the Student Press Law Center.

Students also claimed school administrators used intimidation tactics to block a protest they were planning outside San Gabriel High School's graduation ceremony in retaliation to Nguyen's dismissal. Nguyen told the Pasadena Star-News that Roz Collier, the president of teachers' union, Alhambra Teachers Association, called him and said she had spoken to the Alhambra Unified School District’s Human Resources Department. She relayed the message that if the students went on with the protest, they could face arrest. Nguyen pleaded with students to cancel the protest, in fear that they would be arrested. "I’ve been so moved by what the students are doing, but this shouldn’t be happening to them," Nguyen said. "So for the kids' sake, I just reached out and asked them to please call it off."

Instead, students showed up to the school district's board meetings where they discussed their concerns over the school's censorship.

On June 2, the ACLU Southern California branch sent a letter to Laura Tellez-Gagliano, superintendent of the Alhambra Unified School District, threatening legal action if the district didn't take the proper steps to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation of the allegations. They brought up the newspaper censorship allegations and that students said they were pressured not to hold a protest. "If what I have learned is true—and I have no reason to doubt the sources of this information—then Dr. Schofield blatantly violated the rights of the student newspaper staff protected by California Education Code § 48907," the ACLU letter reads. "That provision bars any prior restraints on student newspapers by school officials except to prevent the publication of obscene, libelous or slanderous material. There would have been no basis for the principal to believe that a story about the non-renewal of a teacher would, or would be likely to, include such material."

In addition, the ACLU letter mentioned that pressuring the students not to protest through the threats of arrest violated the freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution. If the allegations turned out to be true through the school district's investigation, then they would want proper procedures in place ensuring that these legal violations would never happen again. If the district doesn't do the investigation and take proper action, then the ACLU threatened legal action against the school district.

Schofield penned a letter on June 19 to the high school and school district, saying, "It was not my intent to censor the article, but only to ensure the editors understood and took into account Mr. Nguyen's right to privacy."

However, Nguyen had signed a statement allowing anyone who wanted to report on his dismissal to do so.

As for Kim being put on administrative leave, Marsha Gilbert, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, told the Pasadena Star-News that they don't discuss employee matters with anyone, including the media.

Kim, who won the nationwide 2015 First Amendment Challenge award for efforts in teaching First Amendment rights in schools, is worried about not being there for the students while she's on leave. She's not allowed to talk to students and cannot go on campus without an escort. "It pains me greatly to not be able to work with them while I am on leave," Kim said. "I am also saddened that I cannot work with my seniors this year to help them navigate the college process."