January 14, 2008
Above: Galley proofs of pages 4 and 5 of the Spectrum that were deleted by the school principal. (Newseum collection)

Above: Galley proofs of pages 4 and 5 of the Spectrum that were deleted by the school principal. (Newseum collection)

First Amendment Test: Student Speech on Trial

Twenty years ago, on Jan. 13, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that public school officials could censor a school-sponsored student newspaper if they have a legitimate educational reason.

The principal of Hazelwood East High School, a suburb of St. Louis, objected to two articles in the Spectrum that dealt with teen pregnancy and divorce. The students produced the Spectrum as part of a journalism class.

Several students — including editor Cathy Kuhlmeier — sued in federal court, claiming that the censorship violated the First Amendment. They pointed to the leading Supreme Court student-expression case — 1969's Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District — that said school officials could not censor student expression unless they could reasonably determine that the expression would cause a substantial disruption. They also argued that the Spectrum was a public forum for expression, entitled to greater protection under the First Amendment.

For the majority, Justice Byron White determined that the Spectrum was not a public forum but a part of the curriculum over which school officials maintained control. White then created a new standard for school-sponsored speech.

The students in Tinker had engaged in student-initiated speech by wearing black armbands — two of which will be displayed in the Newseum's Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery — to protest the Vietnam War. The students in Hazelwood produced their newspaper for a class — a form of school-sponsored speech.

The Hazelwood standard allowed school officials to censor school-sponsored speech if they had a reasonable educational reason for their actions. According to White, the school may censor student expression "that might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex... or to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy."

Three justices dissented in an opinion written by Justice William Brennan, who accused the principal of "brutal" censorship. "Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official," he wrote. "The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the court teaches them today."

Student speech advocates decried the Hazelwood decision.

"This decision cuts the First Amendment legs off the student press," Paul McMasters, former executive director of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, said after the ruling.

Several states responded by passing so-called anti-Hazelwood laws that provide greater free-expression protection to students. States with such laws include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon.

For more stories and commentary on First Amendment issues, visit www.firstamendmentcenter.org.

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