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Hazelwood v. Kulhmeier: Limiting student free speech

January 13, 2017 by Maggie Baldridge


(credit: Jeff Eaton)


On January 13, 1988, the Supreme Court decided a First Amendment case that had major ramifications for the constitutional rights of students.


In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, high school students in a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis County, Missouri sued the school district after the journalism teacher and school principal removed two articles that they deemed inappropriate from the school-sponsored student paper, The Spectrum. The articles were about teen pregnancy, in which students who either had been or were currently pregnant were anonymously profiled; they also included an interview with a student who detailed her parents’ divorce and particularly her father’s behavior leading up to and throughout the process.


The teacher and principal found the articles objectionable for a number of reasons. For one, the anonymity of the interviewed students could not be guaranteed. In addition, the principal was concerned that the article’s discussion of birth control was inappropriate for younger students, and the journalism teacher thought that the divorced father had the right to be informed of the article and to comment on it. Overall, the school believed that removing the articles was not just a matter of impropriety, but also a matter of protecting its students; it deemed the action within its right to curate a school-sponsored publication in accordance with academic standards.


The school printed the May 1983 edition of The Spectrum sans the articles in question—without the knowledge of the student journalists. Dismayed by the school’s decision, three of the student journalists, including editor Cathy Kuhlmeier, pursued their case in the courts, arguing that the school had violated their First Amendment right of free speech.


Twenty years before Hazelwood was decided, another student free speech case reached the Supreme Court. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, students were suspended for taking part in a Vietnam War protest by wearing black armbands—an action the administration had previously warned would result in punishment. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the students sued the school district. In a landmark 7-2 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the students, holding that “a prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” In the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas argued that if the government were to allow an institution to curtail students from taking part in this form of speech, which neither disrupts nor causes harm to the school or other students, then it is “[strangling] the free mind at its source and [teaching] youth to discount important principles of [the] government as mere platitudes.”


Similarly, the student journalists in the Hazelwood case, along with the ACLU, brought their case to federal district court in Missouri in the mid-1980s. The court sided with the school, ruling that it had not violated the students’ First Amendment rights because the publication was primarily meant as an educational tool. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that decision. The Spectrum, it said, was not only “a part of the school’s adopted curriculum” but also "intended to be and operated as a conduit for student viewpoint.” The paper’s status as a “public forum” prohibited school officials from censoring the publication except when "necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work or discipline … or the rights of others”—an echo of the Tinker decision.


In January 1987, the Supreme Court placed the case on its docket, and in October of that year, oral arguments were heard. The following January, the Court, in a landmark 5-3 decision, reversed the Eighth Circuit’s decision and ruled that the school had not violated the First Amendment. The Court decided that The Spectrum was not intended to reach the public sphere and was indeed meant for academic purposes. Because the paper was not a “forum for public expression,” the school did not have to comply with the standard set in Tinker. Thus, the school had grounds to edit and curate the school-sponsored publication as they saw fit and in line with what they saw as proper academic standards.


In a dissenting opinion, Justice William Brennan shared his disappointment in the Court’s apparent decision to abandon the precedent set in Tinker. While he agreed with the majority opinion that educators have “the prerogative not to sponsor the publication of a newspaper article that is ‘ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced,’" he argued that the courts “need not abandon Tinker to reach that conclusion; [they] need only apply it.” In essence, the dissenters held that a student’s right to free speech was not curtailed the moment they passed through the “school gates” and The Spectrum was indeed a public forum protected by the First Amendment.


Some argue that the Hazelwood decision has made student journalists more vulnerable to school censorship and punishment. Critics claim that Hazelwood “has essentially created scholastic journalism goals that are different from professional journalism standards.” Mark Goodman, a professor at Kent State University, said, “School officials who are not legally obligated to have the least concern about quality journalism can justify their acts of censorship independent of quality journalism concerns.” In response to these fears, some state governments have passed laws that establish greater protections for student journalists. More than 25 years after Hazelwood, for example, the Illinois state legislature passed The Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, which went into effect in July 2016. The law was passed to protect students from what some see as the negative academic and constitutional ramifications of Hazelwood.


Maggie Baldridge is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a recent graduate of Dickinson College.


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