Free speech? Not at public schools

The landmark1988 Supreme Court case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier set a scary standard for First Amendment restrictions at public (high school) institutions when a 5-3 majority decided that “.educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” as Justice Byron White said at the time. The infraction in question? The newspaper at Hazelwood East High School, compiled by students, was submitted to their adviser, who in turn asked the school’s principal for approval. Based on the inclusion of stories about divorce (in which the principal felt students’ quotes may have been unfair to parents who could not respond) and teen pregnancy (in which the principal feared anonymous respondents would ultimately be identified as the pregnant students, and didn’t feel that stories about birth control were appropriate for high school freshmen), the principal had the paper published without the pages containing those stories. The students were infuriated, and with good reason.

Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court declined to decide whether public university administrators can censor student newspapers by controlling the content of the stories. The paper’s editor in chief and managing editor, as well as a reporter, had sued various officials at Governors State University in University Park, Ill., and the university itself, for the school’s requirement that all student stories be approved by the administration after the paper had written a series of stories in 2000 critical of the administration (including a story critical of the school’s decision not to re-hire the paper’s adviser).

Whereas Hazelwood was a case of censorship over questionable content for an age-appropriate audience, and thus is somewhat understandable, the case of these students in Illinois is over the fact that the paper, in playing the role of the watchdog, was doing what it was supposed to do. According to an Associated Press story, “lawyers for media programs at Northwestern University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Georgia, the University of Missouri, and Syracuse University” told justices, “An uncensored college newspaper is vitally important to attracting college students to journalism and providing them with a real-world training ground that prepares them to become professional journalists.” Of course, the absurdity of stripping college writers of their First Amendment rights may have been dwarfed by the irony of an administrator telling students that their stories must be approved by an administrator-after the students were critical of administrators. These students should clearly be infuriated.

And with good reason.