Fearing Negativity and Cancel Culture, San Rafael High Administration Regulates Broadcast Class

June 6, 2022

“Avoiding a topic because it turns heads is a total compromise of a journalist’s integrity,” said Charlie Broadhead, a 2019 San Rafael High School alum. 

Broadhead was in the Broadcast class for three years and grew to love it, even earning himself the role of head producer. He felt that the class was able to teach him valuable editing skills, public speaking, and boost his confidence in the different aspects of reporting. However, he noticed there was a small problem with important segments being turned down because they were considered controversial. One of his own segments was subject to review by Administration. However, he wasn’t sure if their reason for reviewing it was even justifiable. 

The piece detailed the state of the San Rafael High parking lot, namely the lack of space for student drivers. “I recall meeting with Mr. Dennis at that time to go over what we would be presenting. I believe the Administration wanted to be sure they wouldn’t be shown in a bad light,” said Broadhead. Despite the run-in with Admin, Broadhead said he was able to proceed with the story. “We might have had to alter our angle but we were definitely able to discuss the topic and I think that is most important.”

San Rafael High School Broadcast has been around since 2006, initially started by a former Broadcast teacher Mr. Temple. Broadcast is a project-based course in which students learn video production, news gathering, news writing and reporting by working collaboratively with professional level media tools. This class allows students to produce a variety of creative and original segments to the students of San Rafael High. Many students who take Broadcast want an easy grade and prefer to produce light-hearted skits and prank videos. Others want to produce serious journalism that tells real stories about issues affecting the lives of students. However, how can Broadcast students feel this freedom when every single episode is reviewed by Administration, who decides what can and can’t be aired?

Because Broadhead was able to get a leadership position, he tried to push against the “fun and silly” segments because he felt the Broadcast’s news coverage didn’t resonate with him. The Broadcast content was generally divided into sections, some of it consisted of funny skits, the school bulletin board, and the rest was whatever could fit into the episode. 

Some students preferred having silly content to suit the audience, high school students, while others preferred actual news about the world.  However, finding a balance for the different content was difficult according to the former Broadcast teacher Marcos Cortez, who left SRHS in 2017. “It wouldn’t be Broadcast journalism if all we showed was the silly stuff. There were certain subjects such as firearm regulation, elections, the school parking lot, and more that students wanted to discuss on our platform but could not do so as a representative of the school,” said Broadhead.

“Essentially, I felt that if it was important enough to be questionable, we had to report it,” he continued. “Just think about how much the school parking lot has improved since we began bitching about it on air.”

When teachers deny students’ request to inform students on how to report sexual assault because it is “controversial,” are students really allowed to report? If students aren’t able to report on the real world, as they’d like to, simply because it may turn some heads that is not journalism. Broadcast’s creative freedom, or lack thereof, seems to be limited to funny skits and buzzfeed like content when students just want to be able to talk about the world around them. To this day, the Broadcast class content, which I (Evelyn Santa Rosa) have been part of for four years, is still under review. So what is the Broadcast really and how long has this been going on for?

In 2021, a Broadcast student was reporting a story about the Canal in San Rafael. The intention of this story was to shed light on the good parts of Canal despite the “bad” reputation it has been given. The student and the Broadcast class were given the ok by the then Broadcast teacher, Stewart Allan. What they originally had thought would be a good piece ended up being perceived as offensive by Canal and San Rafael residents.

 These people seemed to have misunderstood the student’s language and took it the wrong way. While I did not agree with one of the statements made by the student in his segment, I did not find it offensive nor slanderous. Messages about this Broadcast piece flooded the email inbox of Mr. Dennis, the former Principal of San Rafael High, and was widely talked about within the community. Some people even flocked to social media to express their discontentment. There was even an instance where a student took it upon herself to argue with the Broadcast teacher over Zoom because of how upsetting it was for her.

Because of how badly perceived this piece was, San Rafael High’s Administration needed to address this with the Broadcast class. Mr. Allan and the student both had to attend restorative circle meetings where they had to come up with an apology. The student had only attended one restorative circle meeting but then refused to attend the rest because he felt he did not do anything wrong and should not have to apologize. Because of the backlash that was received, the Administration decided they would take a safe approach from now on. The Broadcast class was told they would now be required to send in every Broadcast two days before it aired to make sure there was no offensive content in it. 

Since this scandal, students have felt as if they are constrained and are not able to produce what they want.

Chloe Strolia, a current Senior at San Rafael High, who has been in Broadcast for three years, has watched as the content of the class has lost its variety. Strolia said she misses being able to talk about global news issues and topics that are relevant at the time, like abortion or the war in Ukraine. 

“We have just stopped proposing stories that we think are going to get shot down,” said Strolia. “So I think that’s part of the reason we’ve kind of developed into playing it safe all the time, which I used to enjoy Broadcast a lot more than I do now.”

Strolia believes the Broadcast class should be able to produce the stories that students believe are important to them rather than having a teacher tell them what should be important to them. “I think when someone is telling us that this issue that we want to spread awareness on is not appropriate for whatever reason they decide, that definitely feels like we’re being censored in some way,” she added. 

Brithany Giron, a current senior in San Rafael High, said, “Everything has to be seen by them[Administration], and the teacher gets to pick what is right and what is wrong. Students should be the ones to decide what is produced, not the teacher or Admin.”

After reaching out to the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit organization headquartered in San Rafael, we were given the opportunity to discuss this matter with a legal advisor, David Loy. 

They[school Administration or faculty] may have the right to take a quick look at the stories before they run in the same way that if you work for mainstream media the editor would want to review before its run,” said Loy. “But they certainly can not be telling you what you can and can not run as long as it is not obscene, slanderous, liabous, inciting clear and present danger, breaking the law, or disrupting the school” he added. “ However, merely saying something controversial or something that touches on a controversial topic, is not enough to justify censorship of student press or student speech,” he stated.

Loy also mentioned that there was a case in Novato in 2001 known as Smith V Novato Unified District regarding the first amendment. A Novato High student, Andrew Smith, published an article about illegal immigration and reverse racism which many hispanic students and parents found offensive. This led to protests and Smith even received threats and a beating. Because of the backlash, principal Lisa Shwartz unpublished the story, stating that it went against board policy and should have never been published. 

Smith was appalled by this and decided to take this to court because he felt the district had violated his first amendment. In 2005, the Marin County Superior Court ruled in favor of Novato High School stating, “The editorial was speech that would incite disruption of the orderly operation of the high school.” However, in May of 2011, a California appellate court overturned the previous decision because it violated California section code 48907. “Speech that seeks to communicate ideas, even in a provocative manner, may not be prohibited merely because of the disruption it may cause due to reactions by the speech’s audience,” said the court.

Both Mr. Temple and Mr. Cortez, both former Broadcast teachers, were concerned about the fact that the Broadcast was required to be shown to advisory classes. “If you’re requiring advisors to show it in class then that’s a whole different set of guidelines then if it’s ‘here is the link’ and students have the choice of whether they want to see it or not,” said Cortez. “And I don’t mean to be critical towards today’s student body, but given the mental health crisis, there’s a lot more awareness that a journalism program needs to have before they send out stories to the public.” 

“It’s tricky because, unlike a student newspaper, students can choose to read the stories or not. With the broadcast, every student is asked to pay attention to the Broadcast. Is it really just a student publication, well no it can’t be because it is actually part of the advisory curriculum,” said Temple. “I mean if it was just a link out there and students could click on it if they wanted to, then students should be given more freedom. But because it’s actually part of the advisory curriculum that they need to watch, then that goes into a whole other realm. I don’t think it’s protected by the same freedom of speech that the school newspaper is, because that’s a publication that students aren’t forced to read.”

In response to this, Loy said, “The statue education code 48907 should apply because it says peoples of public schools still have the right to exercise the freedom of speech and of press including, but not limited to right of expression in official publications whether or not the publications or other means of expression are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities, except obscene, liablous, slanderous, and inceitment. I don’t see any reason why the statute would not apply equally to the close circuit Broadcast program within the school.”

In another instance, Declan McKenna, a 2017 San Rafael High grad, had an experience with Admin that was far more confusing.

During his time in the Broadcast class, McKenna preferred to engage in political journalism but had limited occasions to discuss these ideas due to the spacing of the content. After being approved by the Broadcast teacher, Marcos Cortez, who now teaches in Los Gatos, McKenna worked on a piece about a women’s march which he went to and interviewed attendees.

“I did interviews with students and people, recorded things at the protest, and there was some swearing in the interviews that I did which were all bleeped out,” he said. “There had been a precedent set that year for curse words, where during one of the skits that the ‘Broadcast boys,’ this group of white popular jock boys, were doing and having fun swearing in that skit that was bleeped out, everyone was fine with that because it was fun and casual and silly so it was able to run.”

However, when McKenna included bleeped curse words in his segment about a women’s march, a scandal commenced and Admin was involved. 

“When the Broadcast was submitted to Admin, they flagged the bleeped out swear words as inappropriate. We were told that the content of the piece was unnecessary for this school and it was an unnecessary use of inappropriate words for a school segment,” he stated. 

“The teacher at the time texted all of us the morning of and said that because of my piece the entire Broadcast would not be able to run and that we should have known better. The teacher was saddened by the fact that there was swearing in this piece that I did even though there was a precedent set. Eventually the Admin cleared the segment to air, but the teacher at the time said that he personally believed it was the wrong decision,” he continued. 

“It was really hurtful and really upsetting, because I felt that as a student that was making content about the world that we live in, it felt like there was a huge double-standard where censorship was being applied to an arguably more important piece of news than when funny content was made.”

When we interviewed Cortez, he did not recall reacting to McKenna’s segment the way McKenna said he did. “We might have delayed it to follow up on ‘Is this part of the story accurate?’ or ‘We need to get more information on this part of the story’ but I don’t remember that story off-hand,” said Cortez. “Perhaps the students felt I censored them, I can’t think of a time. I’ve never had that instance or discussion with a student that I can recall.”

When Cortez first began teaching the Broadcast class, the school Administration did require that they send in the Broadcast in advance which lasted for a year and a half. He then stopped sending it because he felt it was not necessary. Throughout his five years of teaching, Cortez hardly felt like his students were being censored by the school or himself; instead he said that he gave his students too much freedom. 

“We always wanted to have a good relationship with Admin. They supported almost all of our Broadcasts,” he said. “However, there were a handful of times in which I had to debate with Admin about a story.” 

According to Loy, there is case law which says it is legitimate for the Administration to say you can’t put profanity in the Broadcast or newspaper. However, it does not make sense that the Administration only enforced that with McKenna’s story when there had been another story with profanity that was not scrutinized. 

“We see discussions going on about banning critical race theory, or making it so we can’t talk about gender and sexuality in school,” said McKenna. “I think those are things we should talk about and are things that should be included in the Broadcast because that’s the point of Journalism, to be talking about stories that need to be heard.”

Like McKenna, we believe students should be able to open up conversations and the Broadcast is the best way to make that happen. Students are being shielded from what is deemed “inappropriate” when in reality we live in a very real world with so much going on. 

Additionally, with the spreading of fake news and bias in news outlets and media in general, the Broadcast is the perfect opportunity to provide factual information that is not influenced by others. 

Some of the students we have talked to have not experienced censoring for their segment, but they are very aware of the fact that they can and most likely will be censored. Many students have wanted to report a story for the Broadcast, but they ultimately decide not to even pitch it because they know they will be turned down. 

Eric Wasserman, a 2019 San Rafael High alumni, didn’t exactly feel like he was censored but knew that it was definitely an issue in the class. “I never pitched anything controversial because I knew it was a way to get thrown out,” he said. While he didn’t actually experience censorship, the idea of stories being turned down because they were “controversial” seemed to already be implemented in his mind. This should not have to be the case. 

Wasserman was very interested in hard news stories. He would try to mix it up but mainly focused on reporting stories as much as he could. “Mr. Allan gave us most of the editorial powers, but I think it should generally be up to the students as to what should go up.”

Furthermore, Jasper Powell, a 2017 San Rafael High alumni, has a different perspective. He was in the Broadcast for three years but doesn’t remember having any stories being turned down by Mr. Cortez or Admin but Admin were still involved in some way. “I do remember the school Administration being included in decision-making. We had a wonderful Broadcast teacher, Marcos Cortez, who made sure to run ideas through Admin if he anticipated any concern.” 

Tiffany Brown, a 2019 San Rafael High alumni, reported more on community events and focused on local issues. Unlike other students, Brown did not feel like the Broadcast had to be controversial. “I think it’s great we kept the controversy to the minimum. It’s a high school Broadcast, we’re not supposed to make people mad.”

After conducting a survey about the Broadcast, answered anonymously in advisory classes, we were given results by 25 students. According to the survey 64% of the students believed that the Broadcast sometimes produces content considered important and 52% of them said that the Broadcast rarely produces controversial content. 

Looking at an anonymous response, one student said they want “more important subjects/informing us about world life things/helping us figure out how to deal with things (harassment, SA, etc.)”

Another response said, “I also understand how much scrutiny they are under by admin and how their capacity for content is very limited to more simple things. There are a lot of rules and regulations they have to follow, as they are never NOT being criticized by somebody for either their content or lack thereof.”

Students at San Rafael High not only want to openly talk about important topics like this, but they also want to stay informed. In fact, I (Evelyn Santa Rosa), had pitched a story in late November on how to report sexual harassment/ sexual harassment at school but was almost immediately turned down by my Broadcast teacher, Mrs. Kilgarriff. She said that we would have to discuss this topic with the Admin due to the fact that it was a very touchy and sensitive topic. 

“As the current teacher, I have never killed a story based on its potential to be too inflammatory,” said Killgarriff. However, this statement is very contradictory because that is exactly what she did to a student. 

“Last year the students were made to feel ashamed of themselves after covering a story that included some mischaracterization and mistakes. Rather than using it as a teachable moment and promoting journalistic integrity, Broadcast was temporarily ‘canceled’ (for lack of a better term). The former teacher spent a lot of time in restorative circles, making apologies on behalf of his students, to repair the perceived damage,” she stated. 

It seems like students, Admin, and Mrs. Kilgarriff are scared of being “canceled” again or being perceived in a negative light.  After this unpleasant experience, it led students to want to step back and report stories that were on the safer side. This fear of being “canceled” is exactly what is preventing students from participating in Journalism. If we have adults dictating what can and can not be produced by students to the school, how will important information be shared.

Student journalism is an essential for students in school. It’s a way for students to express themselves, share their thoughts, and inform other students. We shouldn’t feel like we can’t report on something simply because it’s a topic outside of everyone’s comfort zone. All forms of student journalism at school should be considered a safe space for student voices to be heard but it’s difficult when Admin is reviewing every piece we produce. Seeing how Admin reviews all of the content shows that they really can’t trust us. 

What are students learning when we’re airing pieces where we’re slapping pies onto students’ faces? We aren’t educating students about all the things that are happening in the world whether it’s good or bad. If school is for learning, shouldn’t that include learning about the world around us?

 This year’s Broadcast class did not have much direction due to changes in who was going to teach the class. However, as the school year finishes off and the next school year will commence, there are potentially plans to have Mr. Allan return as the Broadcast Class. Allan, who taught for three years before and during the pandemic, plans on making changes to the curriculum. 

“I’m gonna go back to news, more global to local or local to global things, and I want to increase the frequency of them,” said Allan. “I think I’m gonna dispense with all the training and all the talking and I’m just gonna get them right into making stories, important stories.” Allan felt that this year’s broadcast was mostly a community calendar and was made up of “And, Finally’s” which is usually skits and games, he wants to steer away from that. 

Allan was also part of the Canal scandal that happened around March of 2021. He received a lot of backlash because of this despite there being nothing wrong with the segment. “Just doing a piece on the Canal landed me in absolute agony!” said Allan. “And I feel that I didn’t protect my students enough.” 

Our student’s freedom of speech and freedom of press is being overlooked by Administration and faculty. The idea that a story will be turned down just because it is deemed controversial is a constant reminder of that. As Loy puts it, “Student journalism is where people learn to be journalists and it is every bit as important as mainstream journalism.” Just because this is a high school class being catered towards high school students does not make it any less important. If anything, it encourages students to talk about important issues, but to no avail. It’s a space for students to get together and talk about our world. Without variety, it feels as if the broadcast lacks purpose. If this issue is shut away and ignored, what does this achieve? The Broadcast has reached a cul-de-sac and will remain in this position unless Administration makes the necessary changes. 

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    Lauren KilgariffJun 7, 2022 at 10:10 am Off the Leash Pick

    This article is carefully researched and meticulously written. You make compelling arguments throughout. I’m proud of you for finding a platform where you did not feel stifled, Evelyn. I’d like to add, though, that something we were sorely missing during the pandemic was school unity and FUN. You characterize the “And Finally” segments disparagingly, but your colleagues worked hard on those, learned a lot about planning/managing/executing a segment, the importance of deadlines, and had fun in the process. It seemed like you did too. Many different students were able to participate in those, watch themselves during advisory, and feel like members of the community in a way that is much more significant than you paint it in this article. We were inundated with bad news and pretty constant despair last year, so it was nice for students to have the opportunity to put together stories and segments that were more celebratory. I stand by my quote and insist that I did not say you couldn’t cover a story about sexual harassment — that part of the article is untrue. I recall talking it through and listening to what you had to say. In fact, because of what you revealed as we brainstormed, I had a professional obligation to follow up in a capacity that was swift and permanent. I never saw a proposal for a story after that. The class will be lucky to have Mr. Allan back next year, though I will miss it. I enjoyed learning alongside you all and I wish you the best.