Ohio Joins Debate Over Censorship of Student Press

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Ohio last week joined a growing legislative debate over the free-speech rights of students with the introduction of a bill that would bar public-school officials in most cases from censoring student newspapers and other forms of expression.

The bill is one of a number of state measures aimed at reversing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that case, the Court held that administrators have broad authority to regulate student speech in school-sponsored publications and activities. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1988.)

Three states currently have laws protecting the free-speech rights of students. Iowa enacted a Hazelwood-inspired bill in May, as did Massachusetts in 1988. California has had a similar statute on the books since well before the High Court's ruling.

At least half a dozen states are likely to consider similar bills in the coming legislative season, according to Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington-based advocacy group that has helped draft several of the proposals.

In general, the measures assert that students have a right to exercise the same freedoms of speech, press, and assembly enjoyed by adults under the U.S. Constitution.

The pending measures also would prohibit school officials from exercising prior restraint over publications, unless the material is found to be obscene or libelous or to incite students to break the law or disrupt school operations.

Some of the measures also shield school authorities from liability for student speech with which they have not interfered.

The push for state legislation has come in the wake of a significant tightening of school control of student publications following the Hazelwood ruling, Mr. Goodman said.

The student-law center has received 20 percent more requests for legal assistance from student journalists and advisers in the past year, he noted.

"From what advisers and student editors are telling us, Hazelwood is playing an increasingly fundamental role in the censorship problems they are facing," Mr. Goodman said. "We have students and teachers who say they are being censored now for the first time and Hazelwood is being used as justification for the censorship."

In response, student journalists and others are turning to the legislatures for help, he noted. "Now these groups have achieved the level of confidence they need, and the level of organization that is necessary, to go to the legislature to say, 'We want these sorts of protections in our states."'

In Ohio, for example, Representative Judy Sheerer, a Democrat from Shaker Heights, sponsored the free-speech bill at the request of the Ohio Coalition for First Amendment Rights. The group of journalism-program advisers and students was formed after the Hazelwood decision.

Angela S. Parks, a Marion high-school teacher and chairman of the coalition, said her organization is pressing for passage of the free-expression measure through petition drives, letter-writing campaigns, and the efforts of professional lobbyists.

But such efforts face opposition that has been strong enough to defeat several bills in the past year.

Lawmakers in many states clearly agree with the reasoning Associate Justice Byron H. White used in writing the opinion for the 5-to-3 majority in Hazelwood.

Educators have a right to exercise greater control over speech that occurs as part of the school curriculum, Justice White wrote, and may censor speech that could be erroneously attributed to the school or considered vulgar, profane, biased, unsuitable for immature audiences, or otherwise below school standards.

Gov. John Waihee 3rd cited the Court majority's logic in June in vetoing a freedom-of-expression bill that had easily passed both houses of the legislature.

In Kansas, a similar bill sailed through the House but stalled in the Senate education committee. The measure was opposed by several commercial newspapers, which argued in editorials that the school principal should assume the role of publisher in dealing with the student press.

Although the bill remains in the Senate, its sponsor, Representative Gary H. Blumenthal, held out little hope that it would be approved.

Similar measures were defeated in the most recent legislative sessions of Nevada and Rhode Island, and stalled in the legislatures of Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

The proposals have also been criticized for failing to go far enough in protecting student rights.

Representative Michael Connolly of Iowa, for example, tried without success to change his state's bill to remove the right of administrators to restrict material they deemed obscene or libelous.

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