Los Angeles City College officials have infringed repeatedly on the rights of student journalists at the campus, according to two national civil liberties organizations.
"No institution in SPLC's recent memory has attempted censorship as persistently or with as many diverse methods as Los Angeles City College," officials from the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in a recent letter to Mona Field, president of the Los Angeles Community College District's board of trustees.
The letter alleges that college administrators have engaged in a "pattern of interference" with the work of the campus' student newspaper, the Collegian, starting in August 2008. Among its concerns, the organizations wrote: College officials have made unacceptable demands of the paper's staff, tried to influence its content and proposed moving its reporters under administrators' supervision for "counseling" about their stories.
"Finding a 1st Amendment violation at LACC is like looking for a needle in a needle stack," said the letter, sent Jan. 15.
The two groups urged the trustees to take action to improve the climate for student journalists at the college and noted that the situation had also drawn the attention of state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). They said they joined Yee in urging the college's president, Jamillah Moore, to comply with state laws protecting the students' rights to free expression.
Moore did not return calls for comment. Student Services Vice President Lawrence Bradford acknowledged the tensions between student journalists and administrators, but called it a distraction as the college copes with accreditation and financial problems.
In one of several incidents alleged in the letter, Collegian reporter Mars Melnicoff tried to cover a July 16 town hall meeting on the campus about the college's accreditation problems. The college had been placed on probation by an accrediting commission a week earlier and Melnicoff used her cellphone to record audio of the discussion.
After the meeting, the letter alleges, Moore told Melnicoff she would have to sign a release before she would be permitted to use her own recording, even though it was a public meeting. Melnicoff refused.
In September, as the college was tightening its budgetary belt, the administration cut the paper's printing budget by 40%. The contract shows the original $25,000 amount with a line through it and $15,000 penned in, with the initials "J.M." written beside it.
After news of the cut came out and Yee's office called administrators to express concern, administration officials said the 40% reduction was a mistake and changed it to 16%.
"Clearly there was some retaliation in terms of the budget, which they didn't recant until our office called them," said Adam Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff. Yee has written two laws protecting students' speech rights.
Daniel Marlos, head of the college's Media Arts/Photography/Journalism Department, said administrators blamed him -- falsely, he says -- for giving the budget document to reporters and a warning memo was placed in his personnel file. The warning was later removed.
"I received a counseling memo for giving a public document to a reporter when in fact I didn't," Marlos said. "Even if I had done it, I had a perfect right to."
On Oct. 7, Yee wrote a letter to Moore saying that the college's policies "suggest a retaliatory policy that is prohibited by California law." Community College District Interim Chancellor Tyree Wieder responded to Yee, saying officials had found no free speech violations on the campus.
Now, Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said the organization hopes its letter persuades district trustees to look into and improve the situation for student journalists at the college.
And Collegian Editor in Chief Frank Elaridi said he and others on the staff are grateful for the support. "It feels like we're not just talking to a wall now," Elaridi said. "This will actually make the board take our allegations more seriously."