© Eli Justin Bortz
Survey of Electronic Publishing, Spring 2003.
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Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier: What it means (and could mean)
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which would prove to be a defining decision for public high school newspapers, but possibly even college news publications. The case involved Hazelwood East High School students in St. Louis County, Missouri who worked for the school newspaper known as the Spectrum. Controversy arose over two possible stories that were to run in an issue of the Spectrum that involved three high school students' experience with pregnancy, and another story dealing with divorce and its impact on the lives of individual students. When the school principal objected to these two stories running, the pages these two articles were on were removed from the layout, and the paper ran without them. The staffers objected, and eventually the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Essentially, the Supreme Court decided that high school administrators could edit student newspapers if they threatened to interfere with the "educational experience." Associate Justice White explained in the decision that:
"Educators are entitled to exercise greater control over...student expression 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 the views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school... A school must be able to take into account the emotional maturity of the intended audience in determining whether to disseminate student speech on potentially sensitive topics." 484 U.S. 260 (1988)
While the Supreme Court has never made decisions pertaining to college newspapers, some critics feel this case left that door wide open. The Student Press Law Center published their own study of First Amendment rights for student journalists, and made note of a comment in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The decision said, according to the Student Press study,that "we need not now decide whether the same degree of deference [to content controls by school officials] is appropriate with respect to school-sponsored expressive activities at the college and university level." As the Student Press explained:
"It is of some significance that the Supreme Court said it need not rule "now" on the rights of college students. One could infer that the Court might be willing to examine the extent of college student's rights in the future and perhaps even extend the Hazelwood ruling to them." Law of the Student Press, 90
The implications of this decision could be far-reaching, and possibly devastating. More than likely, the Supreme Court will never come down on college and university newspapers, because to do so would be ignoring decades of precedent. The possibility, however, might always be just over the horizon.
Read Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (in PDF format) through the Franklin Pierce Law Center: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier