Adriana Chavira got the victory that the law, common sense and public sentiment demanded for her on Friday. After a short meeting, an official of the L.A. Unified School District rescinded the three-day unpaid suspension she received for refusing to censor her student media outlet, an action that would have violated both her ethical code and California law:
At the meeting, Chavira’s representative from United Teachers Los Angeles read a letter from union lawyers in her defense, much of which cited California Education Code 48907. The law protects public school students’ “right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press” and shields school employees from disciplinary action for protecting that right.
A district official considered the matter for a few minutes before rescinding the suspension without comment, Chavira said.
The situation has been covered multiple times here and here and here and here, so in case you missed it, feel free to wander through the nitty gritty of the stupidity the administration of Daniel Pearl Magnet High School employed in this situation. Given all of this, the conclusion brought Chavira the opportunity to exhale:
A big part of me is really happy for Chavira and her students because the right thing got done (eventually) and they’re now able to go about covering the news instead of being the news. That said, here are three things that remain of concern in this whole mess:
CHAVIRA IS STILL IN A DANGER ZONE: A number of people have asked me, “How the heck did this situation get THIS FAR, given the law, the bad press and common sense?” My answer is simple: “Have you ever MET a school administrator?” I’ve dealt with dozens of them over the years and I have been regaled with stories from my mother over her 50-year career in education. Some of them are quite good, but on the whole, I’ve found administrators to be power-drunk, self-centered dictatorial rulers. On the rare instance they get spanked for overstepping, they tend not to think, “Gee, maybe I should reexamine my entire approach to life right now…”
Administrators will often strike back in a case like this with vague concerns and trumped-up grievances about the “quality” of the publication or “constant errors” that aren’t really errors. It is damned easy to gin up a lot of complaints about student media if you really want to, and if it makes their lives easier, administrators want to.
As a smart, dedicated journalist and educator, Chavira knows this whole thing isn’t going to be a “let’s let bygones be bygones” situation:
Yeah, I wouldn’t trust this guy any farther than I can throw a cheese cake underwater, either.
SELF-CENSORSHIP IS A REAL THING: About a decade ago, I studied controversial topics and how student media outlets deal with them. The research is kind of dense, but the short version is that people have an inherent willingness to self-censor in certain situations. That means that even when they know they’re right or they know they should act, they sometimes shy away from addressing certain issues out of an internal struggle that aims to keep them silent.
A good analogy might be the baseball player who steps into the batter’s box and digs in deep, only to get drilled in the head by a runaway fastball. Even after that player has recovered physically, it’s a lot harder to get psyched up to dig back in and not flinch.
This is not to say Chavira would wilt in the face of another tough story (all evidence points to the contrary) or that her students might fold under pressure (she’s taught them well and walked the walk herself). However, the willingness to self-censor takes on a lot of subtleties that often go unnoticed unless someone is looking for them.
A person might ask not to be named and a reporter thinks, “Eh… It’s not worth arguing.” A story has the ability to really rock the hell out of an institution and an editor thinks, “I’m not sure we’ve got a bulletproof story yet…” A staff wants to protect an adviser, so they decide to stay away from anything that is really dangerous.
Even if the staff of the Pearl Post has the guts of a cat burglar, a few pangs of concern will likely scratch at the backs of staffers’ heads. That’s something they’re going to have to be aware of and deal with as they move forward.
THIS ISN’T A ONE-OFF: Even with those two previous concerns, I’m thrilled for Chavira and her kids in this case. She played the game right, and in the end she won. The problem here is that she’s not the only person getting a kick in the teeth these days in the student media realm.
If you take a look at the Student Press Law Center’s website, you’ll get a sense of how many advisers and editors are getting smacked around for simply exercising their Constitutional rights. Even worse, a lot of this is happening in states that don’t have laws like California’s, which was the bulletproof shield Chavira needed to finally end this debacle. Administrators are killing newspapers, attempting prior review and engaging in all sorts of other unsavory things. For every one case of the law getting it right and providing victory to student press, we have a half-dozen other cases of ham-handed chuckleheads who see the student press as kids “playing” journalists.
If there is one reassuring thing here and now, it’s that a lot of these cases end up on the radar of the SPLC, which has a track record of rallying the troops and fending off the stupidity. It’s also good in Chavira’s case that we’ll all be watching to see what happens with her kids and her review over the next year or so.
Diligent vigilance will need to be our resting pulse in the foreseeable future.