Free speech rights play out differently at private schools than at public schools

Aleah Jennings-Newhouse, Staff Writer

“Urban starts with freedom of speech,” said Charlotte Worsley, Assistant Head for Student Life. She was referring to the way that the Urban School administration interacts with student publications. And here is why this statement matters: while student journalists at public schools are granted freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution, the same does not apply for student journalists at private schools.

As institutions separate from the government, private schools are allowed to deny their students’ free speech rights. Yes, the word this should trigger in your mind is censorship. The administration, staff, and even student government groups of private schools across the country can act as a filter for student publications.

One example of the liberties that private schools can take can be seen in the case of Andrew S. Trees, a history teacher at Horace Mann, a private high school in New York. In 2007, Trees was not rehired after publishing a novel titled “Academy X,” which derided the extremes to which students and parents at private schools went to to be accepted by an Ivy League college. The school, in addition to taking action against Trees’ written work, barred the student newspaper, the Horace Mann Record, from publishing a letter of support that historians from around the country had written for him. In a New York Times article, Mark Goodman, an executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said, “Because Horace Mann is a private school, it’s really not limited by the First Amendment in what it can do … The only legal limitation would be if the school had its own policies protecting student free expression and press freedom.”

Private schools in California have different rules to follow. The Leonard Law, which was adopted in 1992 with overwhelming support, sets the state apart. It states that “It is the intent of the Legislature that a student shall have the same right to exercise his or her right to free speech on campus as he or she enjoys when off campus.”

According to the Student Press Law Center’s webpage about the law, it “expressly forbids administrators from taking disciplinary action against a student for engaging in speech that, outside of campus, would be protected by the First Amendment.” The law is unique in its broad application and can even be considered radical in its depth: “Essentially,” the webpage reads, it “(converts) the private school into a public forum.”

The only exception to free speech that the Leonard Law covers is the case of hate speech such as “harassment, threats, or intimidation, unless constitutionally protected.”

As a secular Californian school, these regulations apply to Urban. This means that in most scenarios, our administration cannot censor free speech. The main concern of the school, as Kris Bailey, Urban’s Director of Communications said, is assuring the “safety of the students while maintaining their rights.”

In practice, this means that Urban looks to its student handbook to determine if specific, controversial content is publishable. The section titled “Criteria for Student-Published Work” outlines the requirements for publishing work. It states that “publishing work at Urban is a privilege.” As such, it reads that students must “exercise discretion and good judgment,” and recognize that they “are presenting their work in the public environment of the school” when creating content to publish. “Advanced work dealing with controversial issues,” it continues, “must be more than a mere reflection of the controversial content as it exists already.”

In terms of the Urban Legend, this means upholding strong journalistic standards. According to Beatrice Motamedi, former Urban Legend advisor, the staff must “be very transparent about the stories, and be very open about different points of view.” “The reporting must be accurate, fair, and balanced,” she said.

Unfortunately, following journalistic standards does not guarantee that a story will be published; there are a few topics that the Urban administration does not approve for publication. In writing about gun regulation, medical marijuana, and virginity, the school has stepped in to either guide or limit the content of the publication to protect students from the hazards of sharing personal information with the world.

Urban has many public forums where free speech is practiced. For instance, the Peer Education Theater and Affinity shows showcase students’ personal writing, some of which contains material that would never be deemed school-appropriate outside of those venues. In these performances and other expressions of art in the school, as Kaern Kreyling, school counselor and co-director of the Peer Ed show said, “we don’t have rules, we have guidelines.”

“Dialogue and communication around the subjects in the (Peer Ed) show have, I would say, taken the place of any kind of review the administration may have done in the past,” said Frances Evens, theater teacher and co-director of the Peer Ed show.

We all need to be knowledgeable about the information that we receive from the world around us. The Urban Legend is not censored, but as with any outlet of information, it comes with a certain perspective. In our case, it won’t necessarily end with freedom of speech.