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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Mountain View episode underscores need for independent student journalism

Recently, Hanna Olson, a senior who is the editor-in-chief of Mountain View High School’s Oracle student newspaper, and its former adviser, Carla Gomez, have threatened to sue MVHS’s administration over alleged censorship of the publication and the removal of  Gomez from her position.

According to a letter written by their lawyer Jean-Paul Jassy, the administration pressured writers last spring to significantly alter an article documenting sexual assault among students, published May 8, with principal Kip Glazer allegedly telling the newspaper’s staff members that the article would reflect poorly on the school and there could be “catastrophic consequences” for the publication. 

Controversial topics like sexual misconduct, LGBTQ+ rights, child pornography and even vaccinations have all been subject to censorship by administrators in high schools across the nation. This marks a dangerous trend: A student press is rendered defunct if it is subject to the whims of those we are meant to hold accountable.

Student journalists are held to the same ethical codes and legal guidelines as professional journalists, but across the nation, student journalists do not always share the same protections as their professional counterparts. Over 60% of publications at 4-year public institutions have faced some form of censorship, which can range from defunding the publication to outright silencing journalists, as Glazer has been accused of doing. 

The First Amendment right to freedom of journalistic expression is subverted by administrators taking advantage of the 1988 Supreme Court’s Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision. The verdict, siding with the principal, stated, “Educators did not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the content of student speech so long as their actions were ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.’”

The Hazelwood decision does not apply to California public schools. Instead, student publications here are governed by the state’s educational code. Perhaps not knowing or not caring about the greater protections enjoyed by student journalists in California and a handful of other states, the principal allegedly sought to water down a story about sexual assault to maintain the school’s image. 

Then the administration allegedly took it one step further by getting rid of the Introduction to Journalism class this year. While the school may have been within their legal rights to remove this class under the excuse of low enrollment, it was a bad-faith decision that will severely impede the publication in the coming years as the pipeline of students in the program dries up.

Even when schools provide minimal funding for journalism programs, administrators can still interfere with the publication. Student journalists should function as independent journalists under the direction of an adult adviser, but are often treated by administrators as an extension of the school’s public relations department — essentially, they’re told they can’t make the school look bad even if what they write is the truth. As journalists, students must learn to seek the truth and publish stories without fear or favor, pointing out the bad along with the good. 

Glazer’s alleged suppression of The Oracle on multiple fronts speaks volumes to the prevalence of censorship in student journalism, even in liberal states like California. Though eliminating the class may be within the school’s rights, pressuring writers to change the article and reassigning the adviser just to protect the school’s image undermines the ethos of good journalism and teaches the wrong lessons.

 Student journalists serve a crucial role within communities and are a cornerstone of a free press. Every school deserves to have real student journalism, and every student publication deserves an environment where they aren’t punished for or threatened for doing their essential work of tackling tough, sometimes uncomfortable issues. If the First Amendment’s protection of journalistic expression can discriminate between a classroom and a newsroom, it has failed to protect journalists everywhere. 

“Just the premise of wanting to have so much influence over the publication of this article was, to me, a violation of the rights of the publication,” Olson recently told the Mountain View Voice. 

The removal of Gomez and the Introduction to Journalism class was unacceptable. The MVHS administration needs to bring back Gomez as The Oracle’s adviser and make a good-faith effort going forward to support independent student journalism.

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