The University of California expressed its opposition to a bill currently in the California legislature that aims to prohibit high schools and public universities from taking disciplinary action against journalism advisers for protecting students’ freedom of speech.
The letter, sent to the bill’s author Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) on June 16, not only states UC’s opposition to the bill, but goes on to declare that all UC campuses would refuse to comply with the potential law. In the letter, UC argues that the bill is not limited only to journalism teachers, but would extend the protections to all UC employees – something UC views as potentially problematic.
“Although the university goes to great lengths to ensure academic and speaking freedoms, we must also have the right to take appropriate measures if a faculty member or UC employee fails to observe instruction standards or university policies,” the letter states.
The UC system has existing laws and policies that protect the freedom of speech for students and faculty, the letter states. UC argues that if SB 1370 were enacted, it would be more difficult to uphold existing standards for curriculum content and methods of instruction.
The bill’s proponents believe UC is misreading the application of the bill, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The bill seeks to close a major loophole in California’s student speech laws, he said.
While student speech rights are directly protected under current law, there are no laws protecting the journalism teachers who advise and instruct the students, Ewert said. There have been several instances of institutions – primarily high schools – punishing advisers for printing stories that are critical of or embarrassing to the administration.
“They’re not being punished for printing something that is salacious or downright obscene,” Ewert said. “Principals are asking teachers to break the law.”
Some cases have resulted in the dismissal of qualified journalism instructors with inexperienced replacements who are more willing to obey the requests of the administration, he said.
“This bill protects advisers, and in doing so protects student speech and journalism,” Ewert said.
Legislators amended the bill last week in order to clarify its function. While they did not change the content of the bill itself, they emphasized that the bill targets freedom of speech for students – not a deviation from classroom curriculum, as the letter from UC suggests, said Adam J. Keigwin, communications director for Yee.
“It’s about protecting teachers who are facilitating student free speech rights,” Keigwin said. “The bill is not meant to change curriculum standards.”
Roughly half a dozen university and college advisers have approached Yee’s office to offer support for the bill, Keigwin said. One is a faculty member from a UC campus, but asked to remain anonymous in the interest of his job and reputation.
“They don’t feel comfortable coming forward because they’re afraid of retaliation from their administration,” he said.
Senate Bill 1370 was officially approved by the senate by a vote of 35 to 2 on Apr. 21. It is scheduled to be heard in the Assembly on Monday.
RITA SIMERLY can be reached at email@example.com.