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Home Civics Free Speech History Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: Freedom of Student Press?

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: Freedom of Student Press?

  • 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier established standard for censorship of school newspapers
  • Court ruled that school officials could exercise prior restraint if and when a student newspaper was produced as a "regular classroom activity" rather than a "forum for public expression"
  • That odd standard means that most high school papers now are assumed not to have First Amendment protections, while most college newspapers are

The Supreme Court's move from Tinker to Bethel clearly narrowed the scope of students' rights to exercise free speech while in school. But what about student journalism? Both Tinker and Bethel focused specifically on non-written forms of expression, and the court did not clarify whether the same standards should apply to the student press. Did Tinker mean that student newspapers had a right to freely print articles representing any and every political viewpoint? Or did Bethel give school administrators the right to censor student newspapers if they tried to print offensive or disruptive material? By the mid-1980s, the standards under which the student press was operating were no longer clear.

In the 1988 case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court sought to clarify the situation. (Whether the court actually succeeded in doing so is debatable.) The case began when student journalists at Missouri's Hazelwood East High School sought to print two edgy articles—one focusing on the effects of parents' divorce upon students, another examining the issue of teenage pregnancy at the school. The principal, upon review of their page proofs, deleted both articles from the issue before publication. The student journalists, angered by what they viewed as a blatant imposition of censorship, went to court. In the end, they lost.

In a split 5-3 decision, the Court ruled that the principal of Hazelwood East did have the constitutional grounds to censor the school newspaper because the paper itself, which was produced as part of a for-credit journalism class, was not a "forum for public expression" but was rather a "regular classroom activity." As such, the paper deserved not the broad protection offered to the free press under the First Amendment, but rather the much narrower protection offered to students in a classroom setting, where "educators are entitled to exercise greater control." The court majority then offered a very broad set of specific circumstances in which school officials would be justified in censoring student publications—cases in which the material in question was "ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences."65 Critics blasted these standards as far too broad and subjective in nature; what, for example, would prevent a school principal from rejecting a critical article on the spurious basis that it was "poorly written"? In practice, the Hazelwood decision gave school officials a great deal of power to regulate the content of the student press; student press freedom advocates argue that it gutted students' protections under the First Amendment.

But there is a catch. Not wanting to make quite such a blatant attack on students' First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court in Hazelwood couched its judgment in that odd distinction between a "forum for public expression" and a "regular classroom activity." In practice, of course, most high school papers have functioned as both; the Hazelwood decision explicitly argued that a school publication that had established itself as a "public forum" would be entitled to broader protections under the First Amendment. Hazelwood East's paper just didn't happen to meet that standard. Student journalists and their faculty advisers across the country have been wondering whether or not their own papers qualify as "public forums"—and thus whether or not their publications have First Amendment rights—ever since.

The Supreme Court has refused to accept subsequent cases that might have helped to clarify the vague Hazelwood standard. In the absence of a clear statement from the court, the general presumption since Hazelwood has been that most high school papers do not have full-blown freedom of the press, but that most college papers (which typically are not produced as part of the academic curriculum) do. However, in 2005, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago applied the Hazelwood standard to a college paper for the first time, ruling in Hosty v. Carter that Governors State University in Illinois did have the right to prior review of the school's previously independent newspaper. In 2007, the Supreme Court refused to hear the Illinois students' appeal. That means that as of today, college publications in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—the Seventh Circuit's jurisdiction—may be subject to censorship under the Hazelwood standard, while college papers elsewhere in the country are not.

Clearly, it's an understatement to say that the current state of student First Amendment law is a bit of a mess. Even the simplest question lacks a simple answer: Do students today have a First Amendment right to the freedom of speech and press?


Maybe not.

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