The Matador

This H.S. Journalism Teacher Tried To Teach Her Students About Free Speech And Got Benched

Jennifer Kim encouraged her student to use their First Amendment rights to cover a controversial story and the decision had serious consequences.

Jennifer Kim is an award-winning journalism teacher at California's San Gabriel High School. Well, actually, she was an award-winning journalism teacher at SGHS. Until two weeks ago, when she was put on indefinite administrative leave for teaching her students about journalism and the First Amendment. You know, her job.

In fact, a spokesperson for the school's newspaper says that Kim -- who has taught at SGHS for nearly a decade -- is not only on leave, but is also barred from speaking to her students or coming onto campus unescorted while the district conducts a review of her actions.

What got her sidelined? Her students say it was the thing Kim urged them to do every day: defend their First Amendment rights. Specifically, that they should fight to run a story in the school paper about the mysterious decision to get rid of a beloved teacher who had just one year on the job.

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The Little Story That Turned Into A Huge Deal

Just as the 2014-2015 school year was wrapping up earlier this year, SGHS students found out that fist-year teacher Andrew Nguyen's contract was not being renewed. And they were mad and confused. And because Ms. Kim encouraged them to dig into stories that mean something to them, they wanted to write about it.

But should they?

"Teenagers can be very self-interested, they believe the world revolves around them," Kim told MTV News about the delicate balance of encouraging students to express their emotions, while also stepping outside their world to see the bigger picture.

"So the reason why this issue affects them as much as it does is because Mr. Nguyen -- who is a man, but whom they refer to as 'mother' -- was taken out. It was a complete shock to them and though they clearly didn't see the greater implications, that is why they started going ballistic."

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Ballistic in this case came in the form of a proposed story in the school newspaper, The Matador, about the controversial dismissal of Nguyen. Knowing this was touchy material, the students approached their principal for comment on the article, at which point he reportedly told Kim that the paper was not allowed to publishing anything about the school's decision.

Thanks to Kim's lessons about the the First Amendment and free speech, though, the students knew something was up, so the Matador staff printed the following statement on May 27:

"The Matador views this as a clear violation of freedom of the press ... as Nguyen’s dismissal is an ongoing and public incident relevant to the school."

Here's how they knew that: Ms. Kim reminded them that the state's education code 48907 was written to "protect the work of student journalists and their advisers." And under the code, the only prohibited speech is anything that is potentially "obscene, libelous or scandalous."

Was their story any of those things? They definitely didn't think so, and neither did Ms. Kim. That's when the free speech fight, which has lasted all summer and shows no sign of abating anytime soon, really took off.

At a school board meeting on August 4, a Matador staffer presented an email from (now-former) principal Jim Schofield sent in May in which he instructed Kim that the article "cannot" be published.

"Cannot" was the word that got to them. That felt like a direct denial of their right to print a story that none of them felt was "obscene, libelous or scandalous."

Marsha Gilbert, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and the Alhambra Teacher's Association did not return requests for comment, though the school administrators have steadfastly denied allegations of censorship in the case.

'Transparency Man' leading protesters in front of the Alhambra Unified School District office.

This Is A Freedom Of Speech Issue, Full-Stop

Kim, who spoke to MTV news with the understanding that she was unable to discuss the specifics of the case due to potential legal action, said she never wavered in urging the students to fight for their rights.

She described the staff of the paper -- which like the school's yearbook is student-run -- as highly motivated, gifted kids who initially came to her wondering if she thought they should cover the Nguyen story.

"I said, 'Of course, we just won a First Amendment award. So live up to it,'" Ms. Kim told them at the time. "So of course they start covering it and the principal got very nervous."

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According to local reports, Kim was surprised when she was put on leave after a run-in with the school's new principal, Debbie Stone, at a student yearbook camp in early August. The move by Stone was especially ironic considering that Kim was named one of 40 teachers from across the nation in the 1 For All First Amendment Challenge, which honors educators who teach students about the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

And if there ever was a First Amendment case, this is it, according to Ken Paulson, President of the First Amendment Center and founder of 1 For All.

"This is absolutely a First Amendment issue," he told MTV News of the Nguyen story. "Clearly the students had every right to report on the departure of a teacher and too often high school administrators forget that the Bill of Rights is not something handed to students with a high school diploma."

Paulson said the Matador staff should report on the world around them, not just as students, "but as citizens asking about the departure of a government employee on the public payroll. No one would question the right of a local newspaper to ask why the assistant chief of police had left his job, so it's unthinkable that a high school administrator would think students have no right to ask these questions and report on them."

He's not the only one who thinks they're in the right here, either. The ACLU got involved in the case in June when it threatened a lawsuit about the alleged censorship and the Student Press Law Center has stepped in to represent the students as well.

In the meantime, according to an email from Simon Yung, the interim correspondent and media liaison for the Matador, since the school year recently started, Kim has not been able to speak to the incoming editor-in-chief of the paper or the rest of the staff and the staff has been locked out of the newsroom and unable to access the materials they need to publish the award-winning publication.

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A Student Speaks Up And Vows To Fight On

For a lot of people, high school is where you figure out who you are, where you fit in and what you're willing to fight for. For the Matador's 2014-2015 editor-in-chief, Kristy Duong, 18, it's absolutely where she learned what she stands for.

Duong and her staff wanted to cover Nguyen's story last school year because it raised a lot of questions for the students and their parents. "We usually wouldn't cover something like this, but because it caused such a reaction -- students and parents assembled petitions and went to talk to the administration -- we did," she told MTV News.

"We were not asking the principal to read it beforehand ... but when Ms. Kim told us that Principal Schofield said we cannot write about [Nguyen's dismissal], she seemed quite upset because we had gotten censored," she said.

They knew they'd been censored because Kim taught her students about their rights as journalists between issues of every paper by having them give presentations on famous First Amendment cases. It's that kind of dedication that just earned them a National Scholastic Press Association All-American rating for their summer coverage of the incident.

And they're not done. Students plan to speak about the summer's events at a board meeting on Tuesday night (Aug. 25), touching on Nguyen's dismissal, "the lack of punitive action against the administrator(s) who censored The Matador and consequently violated the law and that atmosphere of retaliation and intimidation that has resulted from the District's actions," according to Matador liaison Yung.

Kim's students posted a series of First Amendment Challenge videos last year.

A Free Speech Victory, But Huge Questions Remain About What's Next

The article about Nguyen did eventually get published, but Duong -- who is headed to Stanford in the fall to study engineering -- said that didn't change the fact that it was initially censored.

"I've learned a lot about my First Amendment rights and I do believe that they're very important and I've very disappointed that after four years of being in this district these are the people running it and this is what happens when people speak up," Duong said. "One of things I learned is that it is important to speak up, particularly when your rights are violated."

No matter what happens to her Kim -- who has been on administrative leave since Aug. 2 and hasn't been on school grounds since classes began on the 14th -- she said she's really proud of her Matador reporters and their tenacity in the face of these challenges.

"They are finding out who they are," she said. "They're putting their values into action and they're fighting for something they believe in and they're not going to stop."