Hazelwood and the lasting effect on Student Journalism

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Tim D.

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Member since March 5, 2015
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In 1988, the Supreme Court had a 5-3 vote that forever changed High School Press Associations. The iconic Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case sparked debate on whether or not high school writers had the same first amendment rights as professional reporters. This shift in how the country interpreted the first amendment has led to an uprising of journalists and administration fighting over the right to publish controversial articles. The impact of the case has, and will continue to affect how student reporting is written in schools across the nation.

Hazelwood high school from St. Louis County Missouri had a student newspaper, “The Spectrum”. The Spectrum and it’s writers had decided to publish two articles for the May paper that investigated teenage pregnancy and parental divorce. Mr. Reynolds, the principal at the time, turned down the articles, concerned that the fake names of the girls would be discovered and that problems would arise. He took two pages out of the paper, seven articles total, so that they would not be published. The students did not find out until the day of publication. An editor, and two writers sued.

To better understand, you should know the difference between prior review, and prior restraint. Prior review is when administration looks over the paper before publication. Nothing is removed or censored. Prior restraint is when the administration removes and censors material. It is argued that prior review often leads to the more serious prior restraint.

After the incredibly important Tinker v. Des Moines case, High Schools had believed in, and had conducted common practice in writing articles free of prior restraint. The Tinker case established that freedom of speech was perfectly acceptable in a school environment, and that no administrator had viable reason to prevent it. Now that Hazelwood had submitted a lawsuit based on writing, and not symbolic speech, the court had to shift the focus into a new frame of mind.

Hazelwood lost its first fight in the “US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri,” had it reversed in the court of appeals, and eventually landed on the desk of the Supreme Court. The big question was whether or not a school paper qualified as a “Forum for student expression.” Public Forum papers get more first amendment rights than non-public forum student media.

The Supreme Court argued that because the paper shared the school’s name, and received funding (approximately 3/4 of total budget) from the school, that it was not in fact, a forum for public expression. The school cited that the articles contained information that was “Inappropriate in school-sponsored publication distributed to 14-year-old freshmen.” That material could be censored if it had “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns”. Basically, if the article was to disrupt school activities or get in the way of teaching, that administration had the right to censor it. Also, if the article would make the school appear to lean in one direction politically, that it could be censored.

The Supreme Court (down a man due to retirement) voted 5-3 in the favor of Mr. Reynolds, and in that instant changed the rights of student media. Justices Rehnquist, White, Stevens, O’Connor, and Scalia held the majority vote. On the minority side, Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun. Justice Brennan, disturbed and upset by the results later stated “The young men and women of Hazelwood East High expected a civics lesson, but not the court teaches them today.” He believed it counteracted the decision of Tinker, where in 1969 the Supreme Court said, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the school house gate." However, because the Spectrum was not a forum for student expression, it did not hold the same rights as Tinker.In an earlier case, Bethel v. Fraser, the Supreme Court established that student’s first amendment rights are varied in different scenarios due to what type of expression occurred, and where and how it happened.

The Student Law Press Center (SPLC) is one of many groups dedicated to trying to end student censorship, and bring student media back to where it used to be. From their website, “The Student Law Press Center is an advocate for first Amendment fights, for freedom of online speech, and for open government on campus.” They talk about the Hazelwood case like a disease. Asking readers to join the campaign “Cure Hazelwood”. On their website, they list the symptoms of Hazelwood, and how to cure it from your school.

The scariest part of all this, is the result and repercussions felt by high schools since. From 1988-1989, calls to the Student Law Press Center rose 12 percent. In the first four months of 1990, it was up 170 percent from the same time a year earlier. From 1988 to 2003, calls for help increased 350 percent. And according to the SPLC, it is not declining. Perhaps the worst of it all, is that the advisers (teachers) are reporting an increase in threats to job security for refusing to follow administrative requests.

Although now a 26-year-old case, it is still heavily debated. What does the approval of administration to censor writing do to the future journalists of the world? Students are afraid to write the big stories, to give the news, out of fear for administrative backlash. The SLPC “hopes that no student or adviser is resigned to give up the battle against censorship.” As it is the only way to stop it from spreading. So what do you think? Should a student lose first amendment rights because of the impact it could have on the school? Or should they be able to write it, like news is written in the “real world?” "SPLC." Student Press Law Center. SPLC, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. <http://www.splc.org/>. "The Hazelwood Decision and Student Press | Scholastic.com." Scholastic Teachers. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. "Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.




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