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A recent skirmish over free speech involved high school students and their adviser

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The latest skirmish over where to draw the line between free speech and other values, like privacy, has been playing out in Los Angeles, but it's not where you might expect - say, over a tech titan's tweeting habits or between a big city newspaper and a big name politician. No, this has involved high school students and the school librarian. Last fall, students at the Daniel Pearl Magnet High School wrote about the 240 teachers across the district who, reportedly, did not follow the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for staff and faculty to return to campus. In the article, the students shared the name of the librarian, saying that's why she was absent, and her absence forced the school's library to close temporarily.

When the librarian complained, the principal of the school demanded the students remove her name from the article. When they refused, a move backed by their faculty adviser, the school moved to suspend that adviser, Adriana Chavira. But this past Friday, after an appeal which received an outpouring of support from the community and media organizations, the suspension was rescinded. We asked Hadar Harris, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., to help us understand more about this decision and why it matters. And she's with us now. Hadar Harris, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

HADAR HARRIS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So you were one of the attorneys at the Student Press Law Center that the students at the Daniel Pearl High School turned to for help after they received this information from the district and the principal at the school. Just as briefly as you can, you know, lay out the issues here.

HARRIS: Well, so the irony of all of this is there aren't a lot of issues. The school district tried to suspend Adriana Chavira for three days and put a disciplinary note in her file because she refused to censor the students. But California has one of the strongest laws in the country - a student free expression law - that protects students from having their work censored and actually requires advisers or school officials not to censor that work. And so in some ways, this whole situation is a lot of nothing - or it should have been a lot of nothing. It's really shocking that the case even happened to begin with.

MARTIN: I think what's confusing for some people is some people might think medical issues - you do have a right to privacy. So that's why, I think, some people might be confused and say, well, this is a private matter. This is a matter of this person's private business, private medical issues.

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: So does she not have any rights to not have that information disclosed? So tell me why you say that that's not the issue here.

HARRIS: Yeah, she certainly has privacy rights, but the fact is that the students were reporting a newsworthy story. They reported on the fact that the library was closed because the librarian didn't come back to work after the COVID vaccine mandate went into effect. And so by reporting this newsworthy story, they were doing what good journalists do - reporting the news. There were no HIPAA requirements because the HIPAA only applies to the school. It doesn't apply to student journalists.

MARTIN: So the librarian did not argue that the information was false. She argued that it was none of their business, and that's why they took it down.

HARRIS: You can frame this as a privacy issue, or you can frame this as a student press freedom censorship issue. The fact that the school wanted to violate - wanted the students and the adviser to violate the law is really pretty outrageous. And I understand the privacy arguments around it, but it was a newsworthy story. They did good reporting. It was solid, on its face. But this is something that goes on across the country all the time. Student journalists do really important work, reporting newsworthy stories in their schools and in their communities all the time. And the fact that they don't have protections - and even where they do, they're not applied correctly - is really problematic, speaks to freedom of the press, speaks to trying to ensure that young people can use their voice and ask critical questions and speaks really to the future and health of our democracy.

MARTIN: It's definitely worth noting that the school in question is named after my late colleague, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was brutally murdered while reporting on terrorism. I think that's important to point out. So for people who aren't aware, like, a magnet school - what do they do? What's their focus?

HARRIS: Well, the magnet school has a particular focus on journalism and communications. And so you would hope that the administration at a magnet school that is focused on journalism and communications would know the law and would uphold the law and would not engage in the kind of censorship that they were trying to engage in and certainly would not be disciplining a teacher for upholding the law.

MARTIN: So we reached out to the principal of the school who has not responded to our requests, as you and I are speaking now. But a representative from the Los Angeles Unified School District provided the following statement to NPR saying, while we are unable to address ongoing personnel matters, we will continue to support our students and their journalistic endeavors at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School while also respecting the concerns of our school community.

They sent us a statement before their decision to rescind the suspension. How do you read that statement now?

HARRIS: Well, we're thrilled that the district rescinded the suspension and the disciplinary proceedings. We are hopeful that they will fully commit to adhering to the law and to ensuring that students and their adviser are able to publish freely stories that are newsworthy, stories that are good journalism.

MARTIN: How do students outside of places like California navigate similar issues? I'm guessing there will be more of them.

HARRIS: So the Student Press Law Center has been around since 1974. And what we do is have a legal hotline - a free legal hotline where student journalists at the high school or the college level, or their advisers, can call if they have media law questions or if they have issues around censorship. We deal with thousands of students and advisers every year because the prevalence of censorship is widespread. California has the oldest and one of the strongest laws in the country to give student journalists and their advisers specific rights to be able to publish freely. But only 16 states in the country actually have laws that protect student press freedom and student journalists. It's an issue because student journalists actually have fewer free speech rights than other students at school. It's very problematic because school administrators tend to censor things that may be embarrassing to them, may cause controversy, may expose something that they don't want to expose to the broader community.

MARTIN: That was Hadar Harris, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. Hadar Harris, thanks so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thanks so much for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.