Students learn of press freedom from their courageous adviser

Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of California Publisher.

by Jason M. Shepard

Not all superheroes wear capes. Some are high school journalism advisers like Adriana Chavira.

Despite California having some of the strongest student press freedom laws in the country, the Los Angeles veteran student newspaper adviser and former journalist found herself the target of disciplinary action earlier this school year.

Her transgression? Supporting freedom of the press for The Pearl Post, the student newspaper at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in the San Fernando Valley.

The school is the only journalism magnet high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with about 220 students and 14 teachers. It operates an engaging, rigorously reported and award-winning student newspaper, The Pearl Post.

Both the school and the newspaper are named for Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and decapitated by terrorists in Pakistan.

“This whole story is full of irony,” Chavira aptly told PBS NewsHour.

In November 2021, student journalists at The Pearl Post published a story headlined “School staff vaccine mandate sparks protests, cause librarian to leave.”

The brief story covered local protests against the mandate and noted that the school’s librarian was one of the few teachers in LAUSD who quit rather than get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The school is small, and the librarian’s resignation meant the school’s library shut down. For the school community, that’s news.

After the story ran, the librarian complained, wanting her name removed. She reportedly cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which among other things requires health care providers to protect the privacy of patient information.

HIPAA does not apply to journalists. The principal got involved, also requesting that the librarian’s name be removed.

So called take-down demands are increasingly common for news organizations, and they can raise many ethical dilemmas for journalists to consider.

But journalists are rightly skeptical about scrubbing their stories just because someone complains, and the editors at The Post decided their inclusion of the librarian’s name was factual and in the public’s interest.

So after much discussion, the full editorial board decided to keep the story as is. They worried about repercussions of upsetting the principal, but they also realized journalists can’t always make everyone happy.

The stakes were raised in Spring 2022 when Chavira received notice she was under investigation by the school district.

This was no novice teacher. Chavira is a nationally board-certified teacher, one of the highest certifications a teacher can receive. She is also the vice president of the Southern California chapter of the Journalism Education Association and serves as the academic officer for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

The allegations against Chavira were vague, and they seemed to violate several provisions of California’s Education Code, which provide some of the strongest protections to student journalists in the country.

Section 48907 of the education code states that students “shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press,” including the “right of expression in official publications.” There are only limited exceptions, such as obscenity, libel and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

Notably, the law also states students are responsible for assigning and editing content of their publications, and school employees, including advisers, shall not be disciplined or retaliated against for protecting students who engage their free speech and press rights.

California’s laws are the envy of student journalists across the country. Many advocacy groups and legislators have looked to California as they have adopted similar legislation giving student journalists free press rights in their home states, following the disastrous precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case that upheld high school newspaper censorship by a school principal.

In recent years, thanks to a “New Voices” campaign by the Student Press Law Center and other advocacy groups, at least 16 states now have codified student free press rights into legislation.

But for student journalists and their advisers, laws on paper don’t mean much when a principal goes rogue.

Chavira said she was first investigated in the spring for allegedly leaking news of the librarian’s departure to her students. The students said the librarian was open about her views on the vaccine mandate in her classes, and that’s how the information got to The Post. In April, Chavira was reportedly cleared of that allegation.

But the administration didn’t stop there, and Chavira was put on notice about more serious discipline. A meeting was supposed to occur in June about a possible suspension, but her principal was ill, and the decision hung over her head during the summer.

At an event I moderated for Journalism Day at CSU Northridge, I asked Chavira what the long threat of discipline meant to her emotionally. She broke down in tears.

“I tried not to think about it,” she said. “I love my job and my students. I wondered why they were coming after me. The law was supposed to protect me. This should not have happened. They should not be allowed to do this.”

In September, the district suspended Chavira for three days, but it was put on hold while Chavira and her union appealed. As the news spread, so did the outrage.

Press freedom groups from around the country rallied in support of Chavira. So did the father of Daniel Pearl, who supports the school in many ways.

“I admire Adriana and all she’s done to inspire her students,” Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, said in a statement condemning the suspension issued by the Los Angeles Press Club.

“She’s a wonderful teacher and journalism advisor, as demonstrated by the award winning reporting done under her mentorship. She has been instrumental in these achievements. I don’t want her to face any disciplinary action for allowing her students to tell the truth. I only want what’s best for the students and the school, which is why I hope they will reconsider this decision.”

After Chavira appealed, the district dropped the case without apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

In various interviews this fall, Chavira’s students have reflected on the profound education in journalism — and courage — that they received from their favorite teacher.

“From the very beginning, when it became clear that she could face some kind of disciplinary action, that’s when I feel like the staff as a whole started to realize how serious this was,” Nathalie Miranda, the author of the original story, said at a panel discussion at Palo Alto High School.

“I know that something we all really appreciated was that Ms. Chavira was so willing to do down for us. She was so willing to take the punishment for us. That encouraged us so much. That showed us that we had to keep fighting. If Ms. Chavira was going to do go down, we weren’t going to let her go down in vain.”

Jason M. Shepard, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. His primary research expertise is in media law, and he teaches courses in journalism, and media law, history and ethics. Contact him at jshepard@fullerton.edu or Twitter at @ jasonmshepard.

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Jason M. Shepard, Ph.D.

Media law prof and COMM dept chair @CSUF. Past: @CapTimes @isthmus @TeachForAmerica @UWMadison PhD. More at jasonmshepard.com.