Is the U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier 30 years too old?

SPJ Florida president Christiana Lilly speaks about the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices program that addresses student press rights. On January 31, 2018, it will be 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrations have the right to censor and suppress the student press. SPJFlorida.com video

 

COMMENTARY

By Sharon Dunten, SPJ Region 3 Assistant Region Director and editor, SizingUpTheSouth.com

A group of Utah high school news reporters were using their skills as investigative journalists for over a month and a half to find out why a teacher left a position at their school very suddenly. The students requested public records and found out the answer: alleged misconduct. 

Soon after learning this information, the high school newspaper’s website article hit cyberspace with the headline, “Herriman High Teacher Fired For Misconduct.” But when the school administrators found out the student reporters had published the article online and had contacted local news outlets, it was deleted from the school’s newspaper website. 

But this did not stop the student journalists from publishing on an independent student-run website, where they republished the story.

It’s will be 30 years on January 31, 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District versus Kuhlmeier ruled to allow restrictions by school administrators to suppress high school journalists’ [and school newspapers] First Amendment rights through free speech and the free press. 

Under the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazel case, it gave the Utah school district the right to restrict or delete the articles published about the teacher’s dismissal. But does this ruling really make much sense in 2018 when students can post the news online away from an official school’s website? Why didn’t the school system work with the students for the journalism experience and create a forum for conversation about journalism ethics and responsibility? Or was it just about saving face and controlling the information? 

Hazelwood

It all started back in 1988 in St. Louis, Missouri, when three student journalists wanted to publish two articles in their school newspaper, The Spectrum, about the impact of divorce on students and teen pregnancy. Although these topics might be acceptable today and relevant in 2018 student newspapers, the Hazelwood East High School administrators did not agree in 1988. The articles were censored by the school’s principal. The three student journalists, Cathy Kuhlmeier, Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett, went to court claiming their First Amendment right to freedom of expression had been violated.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ruled against the students journalists. The court ruled that the school newspaper is not a public forum in which anyone can voice an opinion and that producing a school paper was to be a “supervised learning experience” for students interested in journalism.

“Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities,” the Court said, “so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate [educational] concerns.”

So in 2018 when Herriman High School in Utah or Plainfield High School in Indiana face censorship by school officials and students’ freedom of expression and student press rights were suppressed, you can see that not much has changed in 30 years.

SPLC logo“I think part of the reason that was inevitable and will continue to be so, is because the courts don’t deal with student press cases frequently enough for there to be a very clear, distinct framework of analyzing student First Amendment claims that occur in that context,” said Mark Goodman, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, in an article on the SPLC website.

“So what judges do certainly is look for Supreme Court decisions that look like they’re involving similar facts, and take the frame of analysis from that. Because the Supreme Court has never really specifically dealt with a college [or high school] censorship case…. Hazelwood is the closest example there is.”

Yes, the college press is also facing censorship. In a 2012 article for SPLC, Nikki McGee’s article “Hazelwood’s expanding influence,” was already addressing the college student press’ challenges with campus officials.

Neil Ralson

Neil Ralston

“I am concerned about the path the court seems to be taking,” said Neil Ralston, a former professor at Western Kentucky University and vice president of student chapter affairs for the Society of Professional Journalists. “Applying the Hazelwood standards at the college level would put a target on the back of virtually every college student journalist in the circuit.”

To help raise awareness to the challenges and restrictions the student press, January 31, 2018 has been named the Hazelwood Day of Action. Among those issues, it is also a day to bring light to the decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago and the need for protection of student journalists’ rights. The day is planned by the Student Press Law Center. 

For more information about SPJ Florida’s commitment to SPLC’s New Voices, contact SPJ Florida.

Sharon Dunten mug

Sharon Dunten

Sharon Dunten, Assistant Region Director, Region 3, Society of Professional Journalists, editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com, freelance writer and photographer at Dunten Media Services LLC.  sdunten.spjregion3@gmail.com 

Society of Professional Journalists

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