John W. North High School

Opinion: Reaffirming the rights of student journalists

In student journalism nationwide, a certain disconnect between school administration and student journalists is characteristic. But late into the 2016 school year this disconnect became apparent to the North Star staff.

A North Star reporter sent an email to then principal, Dr. Lynne Sheffield, asking various questions about the efficiency of school policies. This policies included the relationship between administrators and the school, and whether any administrators were planning on leaving the campus.

Later on in a meeting, Dr. Sheffield and the Director of Activities Becky Porter expressed their discontent with the reporter’s questions and intent to publish an article critical of the school and administration. Ironically, one question in particular was characterized as a “punch in the gut” by Sheffield.

“It has been said that, generally, administrators aren’t always invested in their school because they are always looking for a higher-up position where they are paid more. Is this true?”

Sheffield took offense to this question, saying that it challenged her investment in the campus. She then went on to tell the reporter for daring to question her commitment to North. (Three weeks later, she announced that she had accepted a job as the Director of Staff and Student Welfare in Alhambra Unified and would not be returning to North for the 2016-2017 school year.)

Near the end of the meeting, Porter said, “If you are going to publish something like this, it should be something nice, something celebratory.”

However, it is not the job of a school newspaper to celebrate the success of an administrator who used the campus as a mere stepping stone towards a higher-paid job. It is instead their job to pursue the truth relentlessly and relay it to the public.

Many administrators, teachers and even students often misunderstand how and why certain content is published and other content is not. One misconception, common among administrators, is that the school newspaper is solely a source of information on school events and sports games.

This is one aspect of student journalism, however, as ruled in Smith v. Novato Unified School District in 2007. Student publications are most importantly a forum for the free expression of students’ opinions, even if they are critical of the school or go against the popular belief of the community. Additionally, California is the first state to recognize and treat school publications the same legally as professional publications.

According to California Education Code 48907, public school students “shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and the press…  Except that expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous.”

There is a very clear reason that school newspapers are distinctly separate from the staff and administration. Just as in the case of professional publications, if the establishment had jurisdiction over what was published; corruption, deceit and inaccuracy would rule.

A student-run, independent press is needed just as much in schools as in the professional world so that journalists may chase any and every story they find fit, which in effect helps ensure transparency in school administrations and better informs the public and student body.

The bottom line is that it is the job of student journalists to inform, whether that be through following a seemingly crazy lead wherever it takes you, or simply writing a news brief.
Joseph Pulitzer, an iconic journalist after whom the Pulitzer Prizes are named, once said, “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”