On Jan. 13, 1988, the United States Supreme Court ruled on a Missouri high school newspaper case, where students felt their First Amendment rights had been violated. The year before, the Journalism II class was forced to eliminate pages from the newspaper shortly before they went to press because the principal deemed the topics they wrote about to be inappropriate.
The stories were on teen pregnancy and divorce.
The students decided to stand up for themselves, and in a long journey through the court system, the case wound up in Washington, D.C. before the most powerful courtroom in the country. There, the justices decide that the students’ First Amendment rights had not been violated. The newspaper was sponsored by the school, therefore, the school had the right to say what could and couldn’t go into the paper. Further, the school newspaper was not a public forum where views could be shared, but rather, simply a requirement for students in the Journalism II class.
This case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, would go down in journalism and school history as the Hazelwood Standard, and this month it turned 30.
“We’ve now completed an entire generation of people who’ve gone all the way through their educational lives, from kindergarten through college, with no legally protected right to talk about the issues they care about,” said Frank LoMonte, the director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center. “So I think we need to ask ourselves: Are we better off after Hazelwood? Is journalism better? Are people graduating better-prepared to be participatory citizens? Are people better-educated consumers of news? The answers seem clearly to be ‘no,’ so it’s insanity to continue experimenting on generation after generation of young people when we know the results are in.”
Our friends at the Student Press Law Center have been leading the way to grant rights to student journalists across the country. Today is Hazelwood Day of Awareness, and student journalists are encouraged to spread the word of how they’ve been silenced by their schools and to encourage the passage of New Voices legislation in their state. The New Voices campaign, which our chapter supports, has already passed in various forms protecting students in public high schools and colleges in countless states — but not Florida.
Last year, newspaper students at Pittsburg High School in Kansas were working on a seemingly mundane profile of their new principal when they noticed things weren’t adding up: she couldn’t produce a transcript from her university, she attended another one that was not accredited, her timeline didn’t make sense, and employment claims couldn’t be verified. They published a story with their findings and the principal eventually resigned from her position.
The students made national headlines. Kansas is one of the states that provides protections for public high school students. Who knows what would have happened if they were in another state, say, Florida, where the school administration has the right to tell newspaper staff not to pursue a story?
In October, we spoke to SPLC’s Active Voices fellow, Melissa Gomez, about why the campaign is so important. She is the editor-in-chief at the University of Florida’s school newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator. The newspaper is not affiliated with the school — they split ways in 1973 after the editor-in-chief produced an insert that listed abortion clinics in the city. This came after years of conflict between the school and the paper.
“The Alligator’s independence from the University of Florida allows our staff to hold the university accountable,” Gomez said. “Our investigative team can take an objective look at issues within the university without an adviser looking over their shoulder. While we have a business relationship with the university, being independent prevents any fear of retaliation and self-censorship. I think self-censorship is a concern for papers that depend on their university for funding. If they do their jobs right, they risk that funding. It’s an unfortunate reality that The Alligator isn’t facing. We’re lucky.”
On Hazelwood Day of Action, the Student Press Law Center encourages students to spread the word. Here are just a few ideas:
- Publish an op-ed piece or other article in local or student media.
- See if you have a New Voices movement in your state and coordinate activities with it.
- Create a video-journal where students (and maybe advisers) can tell their censorship story.
- Check out SPLC’s activities (including Twitter and Instagram campaigns and special Facebook live talks) and join in those activities with people from across the US.
“If you read the Hazelwood case, it’s all about control, control, control, as if the most important concern for public schools was not to get drawn into politically controversial discussions,” LoMonte said. “Even if it might have been defensible in some last-century time to think we could wall of students from learning about teen pregnancy by ripping pages out of paper newspapers, that’s not the world we live in today, and Hazelwood is a relic of a bygone era that has no place in the Information Age.”