When the framers of the United States Constitution wrote that famous document, freedom of speech was one of the first rights granted to all citizens. Over the past 200 years, the extent and scope of those rights has been argued, and the meaning of the First Amendment has changed numerous times. High School administrators, publication advisers, student journalists, and legal professionals disagree about how high school journalists are protected under the First Amendment when writing and reporting for high school publications. By interviewing a former high school journalist who once wrote for a censored publication and examining a landmark Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the real-life reality of high school journalists and the legal theory behind the rights of high school journalists became clearer.
Michelle Smith experienced limitations to her right to freedom of speech on more than one occasion as a student journalist at Bedford North Lawrence High School in Bedford, Indiana. I interviewed Smith at her home just outside of Indianapolis in Greenwood, Indiana on March 14, 2009. I prepared a series of questions that I asked her and also followed up to those questions based on her responses. I felt Smith would be a strong interview for my overall research questions, “Should high school journalists be privy to the same First Amendment rights granted all journalists?” Her experiences in high school coupled with her work professionally made her what I consider a knowledgeable person on the subject. I met Smith at Indiana University and worked with her at The Lebanon Reporter, where I uncovered her experiences with her student publications. After brainstorming potential interviewees, I realized speaking to administrators about the subject would be difficult because of their bias. Normally, speaking to a student, or in this case, ex-student might mean that they were biased, but I asked Smith to approach our interview as a journalist, objectively answering my fact-finding questions and leaving her opinion to specific questions. I do feel Smith was unbiased.
Smith majored in journalism at Indiana University, where she was involved with the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, and worked professionally as assistant editor of The Lebanon Reporter. Currently, Smith works at 3M Advertising as vice president of public relations. Her added experience in the journalism world positions her well to reflect on her experience writing for a student publication subject to prior review. As a student at Indiana University, she was educated about the role of the press in society and the ethics of a good journalist. She feels her high school publication was censored because solid journalistic principles were not always used.
Smith wrote for the BNL Star, the student newspaper at Bedford North Lawrence. Her senior year, Smith was co-editor of the paper. Smith (personal communication, March 14, 2009) said that the student-run newspaper was published only with the prior approval of her principal. Each issue had to be first looked at by the principal. He would then decide if the issue was okay to distribute to the student body as a whole, at lunch time in the school cafeteria. “He claimed to be making sure were following journalistic guidelines,” Smith explained (personal communication, March 14, 2009) her principal’s reasoning for the censorship. Smith said she believed this practice stemmed from an incident before she was involved with the paper. The principal usually made little to no changes of the student content. The students were also guided or censored in another form. The student advisor had to approve the topics for each of the articles. Students were not allowed to write about anything the advisor deemed incendiary or otherwise inappropriate. Interestingly, Smith said the students never questioned the policy. She said she felt this had to do with the “culture in high school of not wanting to stick out or be different, fear of disapproval from your peer groups (personal communication, March 14, 2009).
When asked about how this compared to her experience as a professional journalist, Smith hesitated and then said she felt her professional experience was similar in some ways. Her topics had to be approved by the editor of the paper. The publisher usually looked over the editorial content of most papers before they were published. Smith was steered from writing about subjects the editor felt were too controversial and would lose readership in the conservative community. If a story was about an advertiser for the paper, Smith was encouraged to stay away from any controversy. After speaking to Smith, I was a little surprised to learn of her opinion that the prior review high school journalists undertake is little different than that at some community newspapers. This experience was also different from the research I’ve previously conducted for assignments. All of the articles I read focused on censorship in restrictions to high school journalists’ speech as an exception to main stream journalism.
Smith seemed resigned to the censorship that occurred at her high school; possibly because she went on to see this type of limitation to her First Amendment rights for the rest of her career. But, some journalists haven’t been so resigned, fighting for their rights all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) is thought of as the defining case in giving guidance to the legal issues surrounding student freedom of speech. I read the entirety of the 1988 decision including the case summary and opinions. I found the case transcript on Lexis Nexis Academic. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on October 13, 1987 and decided January 13, 1988.
The decision gives an overview of the case up to the point. Students from Hazelwood School District sued the district for “allegedly violating their rights” to freedom of speech (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). Articles written by the students were taken out of the school paper because the principal feared students interviewed for the article about pregnancy would face a negative school environment. Like at Smith’s high school, the principal reviewed every issue of the paper. The students sued in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri where the school won the case. The students won an appeal at the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and eventually the case was heard at the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately found that the principal’s actions did not infringe upon the students freedom of speech rights.
The opinion was written by Justice White, who was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices Stevens, O’Connor and Scalia. Four reasons were given in support of the principal’s legal authority to censor the school-sponsored publication written by a high school journalism class. The paper was “not a forum for public expression,” according to the justices (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). The second supporter given by the justices was that administrators have a right to exercise control over school-sponsored events and events on school grounds. The Justices felt that since the paper was school-sponsored, educators could limit speech as long as their concerns were “pedagogical” (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). Finally, the justices argued that the principal’s actions were reasonable because he had reason to believe the pregnant student’s identities were not protected and that some of the subject matter was inappropriate for all the age levels of the school. In a dissent, three Supreme Court Justices held that the students First Amendment rights were violated. The dissenters said that the student’s actions didn’t disrupt class work or infringe on other student’s rights. The justices also pointed out that the censorship was focused on this one instance, and wasn’t a general policy, therefore in violation.
This case set a precedent for the legal rights of students. The case law has been pointed to in numerous cases since. From my prior research, I learned many scholars consider the decision to limit student freedom of expression. Because the class was school sponsored, funded by the school, and part of the school’s curriculum, I think educators possessed a right for some control over the class. As Smith’s high school experience also showed, this type of censorship, prior review of the paper, and pulling of articles, seems common place. The interview and case law added to my research because most of my research has argued against, or been biased against limitations of students rights. While Smith doesn’t argue for these limitations, her experience does show that censorship occurs unchallenged in high school publications.
Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).