Editorial Rights Of Student Press Are Debated
Washington--School officials have no authority to censor viewpoints expressed in high-school newspapers, regardless of how "inappropriate'' or controversial those views might seem, a lawyer for three former student editors told the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
Under sharp questioning in a case stemming from the censorship of a St. Louis-area school newspaper in 1983, the editors' lawyer, Leslie D. Edwards, maintained that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press would shield articles promoting the smoking of marijuana or the thesis that "Hitler was right."
That response prompted Associate Justice Antonin Scalia to remark: "You leave us with a terrible choice: either no newspapers or newspapers that are unrestricted in their content."
The lawyer for the Hazelwood, Mo., school district, Robert P. Baine Jr., drew equally intense fire for arguing that school officials could exercise absolute control over material published in a student newspaper that was produced as part of the school's curriculum.
"That really adds up to no First Amendment protection," noted Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Such a rule, added Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, would permit officials to censor all articles promoting a particular political party or viewpoint. "You don't mean to say that, do you?" he asked rhetorically.
The case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (Case No. 86-836), is the first in which the Court has agreed to consider student journalists' rights under the First Amendment.
In prior related cases, the Court has ruled that officials may not punish students for making political or religious statements while on school grounds, but may discipline them for uttering obscenities. It has also indicated that officials may not remove unpopular or provocative books from school libraries, but can order the removal of vulgar or educationally unsuitable materials.
The Kuhlmeier case began in May 1983, when the principal of Hazelwood East High School ordered the deletion of two pages of the school's newspaper because he objected to a pair of articles on teen-age pregnancy and the effects of divorce on students.
The principal said he prevented the paper from printing the articles to protect the privacy of students and parents referred to in the stories, to avoid the appearance that the school endorsed the sexual mores of the pregnant teen-agers, and to shield younger students from "inappropriate" material.
In May 1985, a federal district judge ruled in a suit brought by the paper's editors that because the paper was produced as part of the school's journalism course, it was not entitled to the same degree of First Amendment protection as a commercial newspaper.
A federal appellate court overturned that ruling in July of last year, holding that the paper was a constitutionally protected "public forum" for student expression. Official censorship is justified, it added, only if articles threaten to result in substantial disruption or to subject the school to a lawsuit.
"The main issue here is whether a school-sponsored student newspaper is part of the school curriculum" and, if so, whether it is subject to official control, Mr. Baine, the district's lawyer, told the Justices.
"What we have here," he said, "is a newspaper generated by students who were being taught certain values in journalism. ... One of the things being taught in that class was good taste and community stan8dards. And those are things best decided at the local level."
"These stories involved students in a public telling of their private lives and the lives of public-school patrons," Mr. Baine continued. "We feel that that is not appropriate fare for a student newspaper.''
"Suppose the district adopted a policy granting the [newspaper's] adviser absolute authority to censor," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked the lawyer. "Would that violate the First Amendment?"
"I think you could do that," Mr. Baine replied. "But I object to your use of the word 'censor.' What the adviser did in this case was edit."
"That's a fine point," the Chief Justice said. "What some might call editing, others might call censorship."
Mr. Baine later retreated from his position that officials could wield absolute authority to censor articles. "If you could prove viewpoint discrimination, then that would abridge First Amendment freedom," he said.
Ms. Edwards, the former students' lawyer, argued that onceschool administrators grant students any degree of editorial control over a newspaper, they are required by the First Amendment to respect the students' editorial judgment.
"When you start to balance the interest of students to publish against the interest of school authorities to maintain community standards, there's a danger that you'll begin to assume control over student viewpoints," she contended.
"Suppose you have material that's potentially offensive to the community," Justice Scalia said. "Who decides for the newspaper? If not the principal, then who?"
"I have no good answer," Ms. Edwards responded. "I do think that students would have to be involved in that decision if they had previously been involved in the decisionmaking process."
"Well, let's say that the students decide to print that 'Hitler was right,"' the Justice continued. "The community is not going to like that piece, and there's a school-bond issue coming up. What's a principal to do?"
Ms. Edwards replied that the newspaper's adviser could exercise some degree of control at that point in the editorial process, but not the school's principal.
"I'm puzzled that you would have the First Amendment issue turn upon how far up the educational hierarchy the decision is made," Chief Justice Rehnquist interjected.
"It's not so much who makes the decision, but the basis for the decision," Ms. Edwards said. "You can exercise control so long as it's not viewpoint-based."
The Court could hand down its decision in the case as early as next January.