A recent Fresno Bee interview-based investigative report on high schoolers’ sexual attitudes has angered some adults who think the school should have kept students from speaking to the press on such matters.
There are two striking ironies in the situation reported in, among other places, the current Columbia Journalism Review about the controversy surrounding the Bee’s interviews of high school students about what they know and how they feel about sex education.
1. While a provision of the California Education Code limits how educators can survey students about such matters, among other things requiring parental consent for such activity, that law applies only to school administrators and staff—not journalists. In fact the California Attorney General has concluded that “school administrators may not require written parental permission before allowing members of the news media to interview students,” who have their own free speech rights in California to speak to reporters if they choose. 79 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 58 (1996). Those rights were added to the state’s Education Code in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), that public high school students have no First Amendment right to report on sensitive topics in the official school newspapers they write and edit, if the school administrators decide that such material would be harmful to other students or parents. California’s Education Code section 48907 was added to state:
Students of the public schools shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press including, but not limited to, the use of bulletin boards, the distribution of printed materials or petitions, the wearing of buttons, badges, and other insignia, and the right of expression in official publications, whether or not such publications or other means of expression are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities, except that expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous. Also prohibited shall be material which so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.
Student editors of official school publications shall be responsible for assigning and editing the news, editorial, and feature content of their publications subject to the limitations of this section. However, it shall be the responsibility of a journalism adviser or advisers of student publications within each school to supervise the production of the student staff, to maintain professional standards of English and journalism, and to maintain the provisions of this section.
There shall be no prior restraint of material prepared for official school publications except insofar as it violates this section. School officials shall have the burden of showing justification without undue delay prior to any limitation of student expression under this section.
2. What provoked the Hazelwood high school censorship case in the first place was some of the school paper’s articles, reported and edited by students, dealing with—among other things—student sexuality. The high court’s decision upheld a principal’s refusal to allow the school-sponsored student newspaper to publish a report on the impact of parental divorce on students, and a separate piece on teenage pregnancy, quoting but not naming three pregnant students. The principal thought the latter were too identifiable, since there were only 10 known pregnant students at the school; that the discussion of promiscuity and birth control were not fit topics to present to younger student readers; and that the divorce story quoted an identified student’s criticism of her father as inattentive and abusive without asking him for a response.