The first unit I teach my ninth-grade journalism students at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School is student speech and press freedom. That unit is the cornerstone of journalism because it’s important that students understand they have First Amendment rights on and off campus. 

As a former newspaper reporter, I strongly believe in and support the First Amendment. So I didn’t hesitate to stand up to an administrator’s request to remove information on our news website about a teacher who is no longer on campus after the Los Angeles Unified School District’s vaccine mandate went into effect in October 2021. When I informed the student editors about the request, they quickly contacted the nonprofit Student Press Law Center (SPLC), which provides free legal advice to student journalists throughout the country. As journalists on student-led publications, my students determine, edit, and publish the content on the yearbook, news magazine, and news website. That means that the students are responsible for the content and follow a publications staff manual that explains how to handle take-down requests. I, as their adviser, guide them through the production process. 

After the SPLC attorney went over the story with the student editors, including their sources, he said the story was newsworthy and the name of the teacher-librarian who left the school should not be removed from the article. In California, Education Code Section 48907 gives student journalists strong First Amendment rights. That law, enacted in the late 1970s, is the strongest in the country protecting student journalists. My students learn about that Ed Code in their freshmen year. One of my journalism teacher mentors was one of the educators who pushed for Section G of that Ed Code. That section specifically protects journalism teachers from retaliation or disciplinary action for something their students publish. 

With Ed Code 48907 backing me, I knew I was in the right when I told my administrator that I was not removing anything from that story. The UTLA rep also advised me to remove the information or face possible disciplinary action. Removing the information would mean that I was censoring my journalism students. And that is something I would never do since that goes against everything I’ve taught my student journalists. Since January, I’ve stood my ground that I would not remove anything from the story. That resulted in the district issuing a three-day suspension, which was eventually retracted after a prolonged fight and high-profile stories in the media. 

Once word got out that I was suspended, journalism organizations wrote letters of support and explained how the district was violating the First Amendment as well as California Education Code 48907 by suspending me and censoring my students. Supporters include the family of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was killed in 2002 while reporting in Pakistan. And of course, my students also support me and penned an editorial where they wrote: “The district’s flagrant violation of California Ed Code 48907 is unbelievably ironic at DPMHS, a journalism magnet. Through this action, the administration has proven that, despite teaching us about article writing, photography, journalism history, and press law, they don’t respect us as student journalists.”

While a suspension is not what any teacher wants to go through, I don’t regret my decision to support my student journalists. If the district censors my students, who have won awards at the state, local, and national levels, administrators at other schools in the district will be more comfortable censoring their student publications. At a time when journalism is at a crossroads, we should be encouraging students to use their voice and write about what’s going on in their schools, not punishing them.