Student Press Rights Need Defending


It’s been 25 years since the landmark decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools can censor most student newspapers in America if there was a legitimate pedagogical or educationaln concern.

The original case came out of Missouri where the Hazelwood East High School newspaper The Spectrum wanted to run a spread containing stories on the effects on teenagers of divorce, sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, and contraception.

The administration objected and the case went to the Court which decided 5-3 that, considering the paper was produced as part of a class with a staff adviser, the school had the right to censor the spread if there was a legitimate pedagogical concern.

The Hazelwood case was the largest curtail of student freedom of expression rights since they were liberalized in the 1969 case of Tinker vs. Des Moines, when the Supreme Court ruled that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” so long as there was not a material or substantial disruption in the school day being caused.

While this right to prior restraint may seem reasonable at first glance, the effect of the Hazelwood decision on high school journalists nationwide has been disastrous not only because of the lessons that it teaches to aspiring journalists, but also because principals and administrators have interpreted “legitimate pedagogical concern” in the broadest way possible. Furthermore, principals and administrators have invoked the Hazelwood decision to justify prior restraint even in states like California where the state laws protect student journalists more than the Hazelwood decision affords.

The first negative effect of the decision are the lessons that it teaches to aspiring journalists.

High school newspapers aren’t just about sports photos or ‘Bachelor & Bachelorette’ columns. They’re about teaching a new generation of writers and editors not only how to write and how to edit, but also how to delve into the serious issues that affect people. For a high school newspaper that might be an in-depth article on bullying or sexting. But when these aspiring journalists go to school and work for a professional publication, they might be investigating government corruption or the effects of alcoholism. If journalism is to be taught correctly at any level, it must teach reporters how to report stories that make some people uncomfortable. Those are the stories that most deserve to be told.

What Hazelwood says is that stories shouldn’t be told if they make people uncomfortable or if they do anything beyond cheerleading for the school.

For example, Madison County High School’s newspaper in Virginia wrote a story about the deteriorating facilities on campus, full of dangerous structural problems.

When the superintendent pre- screened the article, it was censored and the adviser to the paper was put on probation. The superintendent said that it shouldn’t be published because it would have caused “political problems.”

A culture of docility and apathy is instilled in aspiring journalists if they are not being challenged to do what journalist should do. The most radical and enterprising person in the newsroom becomes the adviser, not some enterprising young student.

This might be good for the administration, but it isn’t good for the future of journalism or the future of our democracy.

We live in a country where a recent study found that almost 40 percent of students believe that government should be able to censor professional publications.

Another bad lesson deeded to us by Hazelwood is that it breeds a sense that our nation’s values expressed in the Constitution such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not actual, tangible things in people’s lives.

Justice William Brennan said in his dissent to the Hazelwood decision that “The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today…Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from [a school principal] to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees.”

Brennan was right. We have a Bill of Rights for the times that it is difficult, not easy, to apply. How are students going to understand the meaning behind the values our nation was founded on if they can’t see them as anything other than high-falutin concepts on a piece of paper? The Founding Fathers need to be seen not just as stone statues but as real flesh and blood men who fought for our rights and created a real system, the Constitution, to afford people their God given rights. Their values need to be felt in people’s lives, not just spoken of on the Fourth of July. For that is the true meaning of patriotism – not just waving around a flag and singing ‘Yankee Doodle

Dandy.’ We can’t afford to have our future journalists see American values as hypocritical if they are to be American values’ last line of defense.

The second negative effect of Hazelwood is that administrators have twisted “legitimate pedagogical concerns” to fit whatever reason they have for censorship.

Besides the principal in Virginia, there are examples of this nationwide and even in states that don’t legally allow prior restraint by administrators.

Within hours of the ruling back in 1987, a high school administration in California tried to censor an article about students with HIV. The California Department of Education had to clarify to the administration that the

Hazelwood decision did not apply in the state because of prior legal protections for student press rights.

In conclusion, the Hazelwood decision is the easy way out for administrators who want to avoid controversy.

However, it’s negative effects on aspiring journalists, the values they should have and the freedom they need to learn how to be proper journalists, cannot be understated.