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The Supreme Court on ‘Hazelwood’ Essay

Both judges and school officials have been thinking about and dealing with the nature of students’ rights to free speech through the 1970s and 1980s, since Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Dist., the 1969 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that acknowledged student rights. Stating that students do not “shed their constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate” (393 U.S. at 506), the Court upheld the right of three Des Moines high school students to wear black armbands as a peaceful symbol of opposition to the Vietnam war. . . .

The Court’s ruling and reasoning subsequently were applied to student expression other than the wearing of armbands, from theater productions to art shows, from school assemblies to student publications. . . . The Supreme Court, balancing students’ constitutional freedoms and administrators’ traditional responsibilities, said in Tinker that school officials could not stop expression simply because they disliked it. . . . Student journalists’ efforts to gain press freedom experienced a major setback on January 13, 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier that school administrators could censor a school-sponsored newspaper. Just as Tinker had started an era of expanded student rights, so Hazelwood signals a departure that could lead toward more restriction of students’ expression.

The Hazelwood principal believed that the stories he censored—accounts of unnamed, pregnant students and a report on the impact of parental divorce on students—were unfair and inappropriate for teenagers. He was concerned that the “anonymous” students could be identified, that the school would appear to be condoning teenage pregnancy, and that divorced parents criticized should be consulted prior to publication. . . . Instead of ruling narrowly on student newspapers, the Court in Hazelwood gave discretion to school officials to:

1. Serve as publisher. . . . 2. Censor, if there is a “reasonable” educational justification, any expression that does not properly reflect the school’s educational mission. The Court called it reasonable to censor a newspaper story that school officials believe is not “fair,” expression that deals with “sensitive topics,” and content that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”

3. Use this power to control expression through any school-sponsored activity. Legal distinctions between class-produced and extra-curricular publications disappeared. Theater production, art shows, debates, and pep rallies are just some of the schoolsponsored activities now under tighter control. . . .

4. Review student expression in advance, even when no guidelines define what will or will not be censored.

Constitution of the United States, Amendment I Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


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