Op-Ed By Magazine Editor
Who Teaches HS Students At Princeton
"No high school principal would dream of telling the basketball team that it could run drills but not play games, or permit the drama club to rehearse but never to stage shows. Yet ... many high schools train their students in journalism without allowing them to truly practice it."
Unmuzzling High School Journalists
By Richard Just
Editor's Note: This essay also appeared in today's Connecticut Post.
What happened at the Supreme Court 20 years ago tomorrow has been long forgotten by most Americans -- if they ever heard about it at all. Unlike the better-known decisions of the last century, the ruling handed down on Jan. 13, 1988, had nothing to do with race or abortion rights. It didn't become fodder for presidential candidates and hasn't galvanized voters on either the left or right.
Yet over the past two decades, the court's ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which concerned high school newspapers, has had far-reaching consequences. Not only has it 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.
Before 1988, the precedent governing newspapers at public high schools was a 1969 Supreme Court decision called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the court upheld the right of students to wear antiwar armbands in school, writing that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Nineteen years later, in Hazelwood, the court took up the case of a principal at a high school near St. Louis who had deleted two pages of a student newspaper because he objected to articles about pregnancy and divorce. The court, in an opinion written by Justice Byron White, affirmed the principal's right to censor the paper. Though the 1988 ruling did not overturn Tinker, it held that the 1969 ruling did not necessarily protect school-sponsored publications.
To be sure, the opinion did not grant principals a blanket right to micromanage their newspapers. Censorship decisions, White wrote, would need to be "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns," and under certain circumstances, publications could be mostly protected from censorship. Still, the decision tipped the balance of power at high school newspapers dramatically in favor of principals.
Definitive statistics on trends in high school censorship are hard to come by, but anecdotal data suggest that many principals have exploited the advantage Hazelwood gave them. For instance, in the years following the ruling, the Student Press Law Center, which provides legal advice to student journalists, began to see a "tremendous spike" in calls from public high school students facing censorship, according to Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant to the center.