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Hazelwood School District V. Kuhlmeier: The Censorship of High School Newspapers

For a long time throughout history, students were not considered to have many rights of their own. They were considered, for all respects, second class citizens. This changed drastically with Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). This case changed the way that students were looked at. Students were suspended for wearing homemade black armbands to represent their views against the Vietnam War. It was peaceable, but the school board still suspended them. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that “students in the public schools do not shed at the schoolhouse gate their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression” (Pember p. 83).

Justice Abe Fortas, who wrote the Supreme Court decision, said that students have a right to express their opinions on controversial subjects if they do it “without materially and substantially interfering with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and without colliding with the rights of others” (Pember p. 83). One would assume that this statement and case would deal with educational matters for a very long time, at least those dealing with the First Amendment. That, however, is not true. Less than twenty years later, another case came before the Supreme Court, this time dealing with censorship by a principal of a high school newspaper.

Background of Case
The students and editors on the newspaper staff at Hazelwood East High School near St. Louis decided to print articles in one of their editions of The Spectrum about divorce and teenage pregnancy. The divorce article had quotes from the teenagers regarding the divorce of their parents: the reasons for it, and their feelings about it. Some students were directly quoted, with their names given, while others were just alluded to indirectly (http://www.wku.edu/Government/vhazel.htm). The students in the teen pregnancy article were not directly quoted, but it was easy for students and teachers to be able to tell from the article which persons were being described. Principal Robert Eugene Reynolds was given the newspaper to review, as was the norm. After looking at it, he decided to delete the two pages that the articles were on from the issue before publication occurred (Campbell p. 204). He thought them “inappropriate, personal, sensitive, and unsuitable for student consumption” (http://www.wku.edu/Government/vhazel.htm). He based this decision on “a fear that the students quoted in two articles…could be identified,” (DeMitchell p.152). Another reason he did not like the divorce article was because the parents of these students quoted could not speak or defend themselves. He also believed that “references to sexual activity and birth control [in the teen pregnancy article] were inappropriate for some of the younger students” (http://www.faculty.piercelaw.edu/redfield/library/case-hazelwood.kuhlmeier.html). He deleted these two pages, even though other unobjectionable articles appeared on those pages as well. The students brought the case before the Federal District Court against petitioners, the school district, and school officials. The court upheld the principal’s decision (Reutter p. 71). They stated that because the students “published the paper as part of the Journalism II class with $4,668.50 from the school board and $1,166.84 from advertising revenue,” it was considered a part of regular school curriculum, which teachers and principals were allowed to change at any given time (Campbell p. 205).

Three student staff members appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court, and the trial court decision was reversed.
“Even though the appellate court agreed that the Spectrum was a part of the school’s curriculum, it said that the newspaper was, because of prior practice, a public forum ‘intended to be operated as a conduit for student viewpoint.’ As such, school officials could not censor the newspaper’s contents except when ‘necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work or discipline…or the rights of others'” (Hudgins p. 394-395).

After the Eighth Circuit Court passed this ruling, the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-3, overturned the Eighth Circuit Court’s decision.

Schools, their Functions, and how they are contested
The law, and thereby, the courts, recognize the in loco parentis concept. “This doctrine holds that school authorities stand in the place of the parent while the child is at school” (Stern p. 68). The teachers and principals may make rules and follow them, but not to the extent that a real parent might. Since 1968, there have been many cases involving the extent of the power of the authorities to control school publication. These cases involve both school sponsored publications as well as the ever-present “underground” newspapers.

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Student publications have often been in contention between administration and students. “The tension usually arises because students want to proceed in the tradition of freedom of the press and yet do not have the maturity to do so,” (Brubacher p. 26-27).

There is a wide range of different publications, and cases about these. Some publications have been free, while others had a fee for them. “Some have been lengthy; others have been limited to one sheet. Some have treated controversial topics; some have invoked charges of vulgarity or obscenity; and some have directly criticized school authorities” (Stern p. 71). The only thing that these all have in common is that somehow, in some manner, school authorities have tried to restrict written forms of communication to students while on campus.

Most cases that have been decided as far as student publications are concerned deals with the content of the publication. There are three main categories that are most often brought to court are criticism of school authorities, controversial issues, and obscenity and vulgarity.

The first modern case dealing with the criticism of school authorities was Scoville v. Board of Education of Joliet Township (1970). It held that the students, who had published something against the administration, could not be expelled for it. The object of obscenity being kept from student publication has never been questioned. The question arises when the question “What constitutes as obscene material” is brought forward. In Sullivan v. Houston Independent School District (1973), a normally obscene word was used out of the obscene context. The question then arose, was it still really obscene or not. The Supreme Court decided that it was not. The case that is being focused on now, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) falls into the category of content of controversial issues (DeMitchell p. 152).

The Court’s Decision-Making Process
The United States Supreme Court used Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) as a precedent for Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), because they both dealt with the freedom of high school students to voice their opinions, against the public school system (Karst p. 1281).

The Supreme Court decided that the public schools need only tolerate the private expression of a student, that they need not promote it. The school did not need to lend its name to anyone who wanted to use it for personal use, which they believed this to be (DeMitchell p. 152). It also decided that

“Judicial oversight must be reduced in order to give local school administrators the opportunity to ‘disassociate’ themselves from the messages contained in school-sponsored student publications. Accordingly, principals may constitutionally exercise editorial control over high school newspapers ‘so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,'” (Nichol, 215).

“The Court reasoned that the public school setting is a special context for the First Amendment, and that a school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission if the speech is sponsored by the school or is part of the school curriculum,” (Zirkel p. 59).

The Court began its analysis by seeing whether the school constituted a public forum or not. In a public forum, all manner of speech must be allowed. It is “an arena reserved for the greatest protection of free speech” (p. 153). They decided that the public school was not a public forum. “It held that the newspaper was not such a forum because school officials had retained curricularly based editorial rights; therefore, even thought the paper had always been open to the student body at large to submit opinions and articles, it had not been opened for general student speech purposes,” (Simon p. 2167). “School officials may impose reasonable restrictions on the speech of students, teachers, and other members of the school community,” (DeMitchell p. 152).

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Justice Byron R. White wrote for the Supreme Court in this case. They wrote that there were three reasons to support the authority of educators over school sponsored activities.Educators are entitled to exercise greater control over this…form of student expression to assure that [1] participants learn whatever lessons the activity is designed to teach, [2] that readers or listeners are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and [3] that the views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school (Campbell p. 206.)

“The Court concluded that determinations of the educational propriety of speech should properly rest ‘with the school board…rather than with the federal courts’ and that therefore judges should defer to the decisions of school officials” (Post p. 2089).
Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote the dissenting opinion for the United States Supreme Court. He stated that a school “can indeed censor a newspaper with poor ‘grammar, writing, or research’ because these items are part of the curriculum. In contrast, the school cannot censor information simply to ‘shield the audience or dissociate the sponsor from the expression’ because this action ‘in no way furthers the curricular purposes of a student newspaper [emphasis in original text]” (Campbell p. 207-208). He concluded that “The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today” (Campbell p. 208).

How to Prevent this from Occurring
“A majority of the courts will uphold a school rule requiting prior approval of student publications if it meets with the following suggested requirements:

1.)The policy should specify that it is applicable only to distribution of materials on school property and at school-related functions.

2.)The policy must spell out clearly what kind of materials are forbidden in order to allow the student to be able to ascertain what he or she may or many not write. In addition, in prohibiting certain kinds of materials, school officials must not violate the students’ right of free speech.

3.)The policy must establish a procedure for submission of materials for approval. The essential elements of this procedure which are necessary to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution are:

a.)”Distribution” must be defined in order to make it clear that the policy is directed at a substantial distribution and not at the passage of a note, paper or magazine from one student to another.

b.)The policy must specify to whom the material should be submitted, how the submission is to be accomplished, and who is responsible for granting or denying approval.

c.)A definite, brief period of time must be specified for approval or disapproval of what is submitted.

d.)The policy should state that if school officials fail to act within the period of time set pursuant to paragraph “c” of this section, the students have a right to distribute the materials.

e.)The policy must provide an adequate and prompt appeal procedure.

f.)The Policy should state that it is not operative until each school established its review procedure and informs its students” (Gatti p. 181).

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the “Court allowed the school to exercise content-based control over a school-sponsored newspaper produced on school property with school resources, the writing and editing of which was part of a journalism course offered by the school” (Schauer p. 351).

Since then there have been several similar cases, but “it does seem clear that the recent cases represent a willingness to defer to decisions of school authorities more than has been the case in the past and a consequent willingness to allow school authorities at the primary and secondary level to choose to have an ‘indoctrination’ rather than a ‘market place of ideas’ model as the major purpose of primary and secondary education,” Schauer p. 351).

Another court ruled that the Constitution does not require “a specific rule regarding every permutation of student conduct before a school administration may act reasonably to prevent disruption…We do not here delimit the categories of materials for which a high school administration may exercise a reasonable prior restraint of content to only those materials obscene, libelous, or inflammatory, for we realize that specific problems will require individual and specific judgments,” (Stern p. 76).
If the courts were required to look at every single case that came forward, they would have too much on their hands. Through passing this ruling, however, they give the principal and other administration the right to take the students at their school under hand, and act en loco parentis. This gives a break to the courts, and lets the students know that the administration is in charge at the school.

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Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) is definitely the groundbreaking case for content-based censorship of high school newspapers. It relied on the Tinker case as a precedent, but it became a precedent all its own for cases similar to it. The case went through three courts, and five years later, the Supreme Court came it its final decision, that the principal was correct in withholding those articles based on his reasons. The students, while they did and do have First Amendment rights, do not hold bearing in a circumstance such as this.

Many things were decided about high school publications during this case, the biggest being, perhaps, the fact that it does not constitute a public forum. It is a limited platform for free speech, based on the discretion of the school board and other school administrators.

Even though one would think that this case, as well as the other publication cases discussed in this paper would forever end similar cases coming forward, but that is not the case. As long as students try to push their rights and freedoms, administration and/or the courts will be limiting them, to help people all over the United States. They do not wish to squash freedoms; they must instead try to protect the majority of people’s freedoms. They do this, in public schools, through the administration and the principal.


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