Hazelwood at 20

By Mark Walsh — January 15, 2008 3 min read
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This week marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which gave school administrators sweeping authority to regulate student speech in school-sponsored publications and activities.

In the Jan. 13, 1988, ruling, the court held 5-3 that the principal of Hazelwood East High School in suburban St. Louis did not violate the First Amendment rights of journalism students when he withheld publication of two pages of the student newspaper because of concerns he had about articles on divorce and teenage pregnancy.

Justice Byron R. White wrote for the majority that “educators are entitled to exercise greater control” over speech that is part of the school curriculum “to assure that participants learn whatever lessons the activity is designed to teach, that readers or listeners are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and that views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school.”

Writing in dissent, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said, “The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the court teaches them today.”

He said the ruling “cast doubt on the vitality” of the court’s 1969 landmark decision on students’ right to free speech, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Tinker teaches us,” Justice Brennan said, “that the state educator’s undeniable, and undeniably vital, mandate to inculcate moral and political values is not a general warrant to act as ‘thought police’ stifling discussion of all but state-approved topics and advocacy of all but the official position.”

Education Week’s ace Supreme Court reporter at the time, Tom Mirga, reported on the decision in January 1988, while my colleague Debra Viadero reported about the “ripple effect” of the ruling about a month later.

Now the case is coming in for some 20th anniversary reflection.

In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post over the weekend, Richard Just writes that the Hazelwood decision not only “changed the way journalism is taught at many schools, it has made it more difficult for high school students to learn the important lessons about democracy that come from publishing--or simply reading--serious newspapers.”

Just, the deputy editor of The New Republic, adds that for six years, he has directed a program for about 20 high school journalists at Princeton University. The students are “talented writers and thoughtful intellectuals,” he says, “yet, by and large, they work for newspapers that are either explicitly censored or restrained by the looming threat of official disapproval.”

The Student Press Law Center has a package of stories on the 20th anniversary of the Hazelwood decision in the winter 2007-08 issue of its magazine, SPLC Report.

In the cover story, Maggie Beckwith reports that high school newspaper advisers say Hazelwood resulted not only in “more censorship by the administration, but also self-censorship by student journalists.” In a companion piece, Casey Wooten reports that what constitutes a “legitimate pedagogical concern” that would justify administrator intrusion into a school newspaper remains a subject of vigorous debate among educators and legal experts. And in another article in the package, Wooten reports on “administrators who choose to reject the power they could exercise under Hazelwood” and give student journalists wide latitude to publish what they want.

I have searched in vain the Web sites of the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Association of School Administrators for any content recognizing the 20th anniversary of Hazelwood, a ruling administrators generally applauded at the time.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.