‘Ripple Effect’ of High Court’s Press Ruling Seen as Test of Schools’ Journalism Policies

By Debra Viadero — February 10, 1988 10 min read
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Within hours of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month broadening the censorship powers of principals, a storm over student-press rights was already brewing in a Cupertino, Calif., high school.

As students tell it, the conflict began the morning of Jan. 13 at Homestead High School, when the principal visited the class in which the school’s student newspaper was produced and told staff members to “shelve” a story they were preparing on a student diagnosed as carrying the aids virus.

To the students, the principal’s action was clearly an attempt at censorship.

“It seems as soon as the principal got the right to censor, he decided to exercise it,” said Michael Calcagno, editor of The Epitaph.

But the principal, James Warren, views the incident quite differently. He said he merely told the students to “put a hold” on the story until he could determine what his new responsibilities were as a result of the Court’s ruling earlier that day in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

“It was simply the cloud of the Hazelwood decision and the lack of clarification on the issue,” he said. After consulting with legal authorities, Mr. Warren told the students to print the story two days later, bringing the conflict to a quick resolution.

But, for the California student journalists and a number of student-press advocates, Homestead High’s brush with censorship represented the first “ripple effect” of the High Court’s controversial decision.

Most school principals, experts on student journalism predict, will treat their schools’ newspapers just as they always have: by keeping their hands off.

“After 18 years of a freer student press,” said Edmund Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, “the Court is not going to slow down that steamroller all at once.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Sullivan and other observers say, incidents such as the one in Cupertino give them cause for concern.

In addition to increasing the potential for censorship, they note, the Court’s decision could have a “chilling effect” on the kinds of stories that student journalists and their advisers are willing to tackle. The resulting bland student newspapers may, in turn, inspire students to launch potentially controversial “underground” newspapers--upsetting to the community but far from the control of teachers or administrators.

“There’s potential for there being a dramatic impact,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, “but only time will tell what the impact will be.”

Setting Limits

In the Hazelwood case, the Court ruled 5 to 3 that administrators have broad authority to control student expression in school newspapers, theatrical productions, and other forums that are part of the curriculum.

Such speech, the Court said, can be censored if it conflicts with the school’s “basic educational mission,” if it is “inappropriate” for a young audience, or if the public “might reasonably perceive [it] to bear the imprimatur of the school.”

Prior to the Hazelwood ruling, administrators at Homestead and other schools had regulated their student newspapers using standards set down 18 years ago in another landmark ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

In that case, which involved a student’s right to wear a black armband to school as a form of social protest, the Court held that administrators could abridge students’ free-speech rights only if the speech threatened to “materially disrupt” schoolwork or violate the rights of others.

At Homestead High, Epitaph staff members and their adviser said, that standard had guided them well. Until Mr. Warren walked into the newsroom, they said, the award-winning newspaper had never been censored; as a courtesy, the adviser sometimes took potentially controversial articles to the principal for his review.

The story that Mr. Warren took issue with was an anonymous interview with a 17-year-old student. The principal said that the pseudonym used for the student was not generic enough and that he had nagging doubts about the article’s source.

Were it not for a little-known California law that protects high-school students’ free-speech rights, students and administrators agree, the article might have never been published at all.

The law, passed more than a decade ago, stipulates that administrators may censor articles in student publications only if they are obscene, libelous, or slanderous, or incite students “so as to create a clear and present danger” that they may disrupt the school, break the law, or disobey school regulations.

“We are not aware of any other law like it in the country,” Mr. Goodman said. “Now it looks as if California students are the only ones who have the protections against arbitrary censorship.”

Threats Are Reported

The Epitaph editors were among a number of student journalists who called the Student Press Law Center for guidance in the days following the Court’s decision, Mr. Goodman said. Several, like Mr. Calcagno, told him that school administrators had already threatened them with censorship.

“Student censorship was going on before this decision,” Mr. Goodman said. “And we’re recognizing that there will be many more schools that will be censoring now as a result of it.”

Last year, for example, Mr. Goodman said he received 623 calls for help from student journalists--an increase from 551 such requests in the previous year. He attributed the rise to both increased censorship attempts and the growing reputation of the center, established in the 1970’s to support student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

Going ‘Underground’

A recent call came from Todd Zubler, a high-school senior from Michigan City, Ind., who wanted to find out what his legal rights were in starting an underground student newspaper.

“We felt the articles in our student newspaper were boring and insipid,” Mr. Zubler said last week. “And we sort of thought the Supreme Court decision would make our newspaper even more timid.”

After researching newspaper law, Mr. Zubler and a handful of friends pooled $25 and printed The Devil’s Advocate, a three-page paper that was critical of the school’s band program and the maintenance of its parking lot. They distributed 150 copies between classes in the school’s halls and in the lunchroom.

“I would say a growth in alternative press is a very real possibility,” said Tom E. Rolnicki, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association at the University of Minnesota.

‘The Community Understands’

While some view the prospect of a burgeoning, unsupervised student press as a setback for journalism education, Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said new alternative papers should pose no problem for principals.

The reason, he said, is that the public would not falsely assume that the school administration had condoned such publications.

“The community understands that this would be a free-lance operation,” he said, “and the community understands that no adult has approved that activity.”

Although Mr. Thomson’s 41,000-member association supported the Hazelwood ruling, he said he anticipated that it would have little impact on the way that school newspapers are handled in “90 percent” of secondary schools.

“There seems to be sort of an image of a principal sitting at a desk and reviewing everything that goes into the paper,” he said. “That’s just not so.”

At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., for example, during the same week that the controversy was brewing in Cupertino, the principal said he had no intention of prohibiting the school’s nationally recognized student newspaper, the Black & White, from publishing an interview with seven teen-agers who had had abortions.

“No adult other than myself touches our paper until the postman gets it,” said Patrick McCarthy, the faculty adviser to The Bear Facts, a paper that has earned national acclaim for Lake Braddock High School in Burke, Va. Neither he nor his student editors said they expected the situation to change at their school.

Teaching Them How

The key to the smooth operation of such newspapers, student-press observers agree, is having a rare resource in most high schools: a trained journalism adviser.

Most lawsuits stemming from the censorship of school newspapers “would never have had to come to court had there been a trained journalism adviser present” in the classroom, said Kenson Siver, president of the Journalism Education Association, a national association of 1,200 journalism teachers.

He said journalism instructors can help head off potential problems in their student newspapers by training students in press law and ethics, working with them in writing their stories--and, if necessary, talking them out of publishing potentially libelous or inaccurate articles.

“For the most part, my kids are self-censoring,” said Mr. McCarthy of Lake Braddock High School, where participation on the newspaper is restricted to students who have taken journalism classes. Mr. McCarthy, the former sports editor of a local weekly newspaper, said he believes he is the only full-time journalism teacher in his state.

More often, however, the newspaper adviser knows something about writing and little about journalism, Mr. Siver and others said.

“Typically, the principal goes to the English department and says, ‘Well, writing is the kind of thing you do, why don’t you take over the school newspaper?”’ Mr. Siver said.

“Sometimes, failing that,” he continued, “they go to the math or science department and sometimes it’s the least senior teacher in the school.”

As a result, Mr. Siver and others said, student press advisers--some of whom are paid less for their full year of after-school work than sports coaches who work for one season--tend to drop the job very quickly.

Clarifying Policies

In an effort to address that problem and improve the quality of student journalism, the jea is drawing up a set of standards by which journalism instructors can earn certification from the association.

The association has also begun urging its members, in the wake of the Hazelwood ruling, to collaborate with administrators in efforts to set editorial policies that outline both the rights and the responsibilities of the student press.

That tack was chosen last week by the principal of a Newtonville, Mass., high school and the adviser of the school’s student newspaper.

“In light of the Supreme Court decision, we felt it was important at Newton North to have a policy that affirms what past practices have been, so it would not be dependent upon whoever was principal,” said Marya Levenson, the principal of Newton North High School and a strong supporter of the school’s newspaper.

In the resolution she placed before the school’s governing body, she called the Hazelwood decision “appalling.”

A Long History

The Court’s ruling comes at a time when precollegiate journalism--a tradition dating from 1777, whenthe first student newspaper was published--is already being buffeted by outside forces.

Richard Johns, the executive director of the Quill and Scroll Society, a national honor society for high-school journalists, said that among the strongest of those forces have been the recent “back-to-basics’’ and “excellence” movements.

“With the increased graduation requirements, it’s become increasingly difficult for students to select journalism and other fine-arts electives,” he said.

Even so, the number of newspapers belonging to Quill and Scroll, the nspa, and cspa has remained stable or increased slightly over the last decade, the directors of those organizations say.

They said the heyday of student newspapers came in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a result of the Tinker decision and the enthusiasm for investigative reporting and a strong press born of Watergate.

But despite the popularity of the student press in those years, a national commission formed in 1973 to study the state of high-school newspapering found it in distressing condition.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Commission of Inquiry into High-School Journalism reported that the student press was characterized by “triviality, innocuousness, and uniformity.”

“One of their startling conclusions as to the reasons why,” said Mr. Goodman of the Student Press Law Center, “was censorship.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1988 edition of Education Week as ‘Ripple Effect’ of High Court’s Press Ruling Seen as Test of Schools’ Journalism Policies


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