In a 5 to 3 ruling, the Supreme Court held in 1988 that the First Amendment rights of the student journalists had not been violated in
Hazelwood School District v. Cathy Kulmeier
, 484 U.S. 260. As mentioned in the second paragraph of this unit, the high school principal had objected to two of the articles that were to appear in the student publication
. The articles dealt with birth control, teenage pregnancy and sexuality. In another article a student was critical of her father’s absence from the family after the divorce.
Without consulting the student staff, the principal ordered that the controversial articles be deleted. Student staff members did not learn of the censorship until the newspaper was distributed. The principal felt justified in his actions. He stated that the two articles were “too sensitive” for “the immature audience of readers” and “inappropriate, personal, and unsuitable for the newspaper.”
The court’s majority in reaching its decision reviewed a related case,
Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser
, which upheld a school board’s punishment of a student who gave a vulgar speech at a school assembly. Justice Byron R. White writing for the majority stated that schools do not have to permit student expression if it conflicts with the basic educational mission of the classroom. The purpose of the student newspaper
was not to provide “a forum for public expression,” but rather to create a “laboratory situation” for students to practice basic journalism skills.
In reaching its decision the Court majority distinguished the situation in
from that in
. The Court recognized two forms of student expression in public schools. “Personal expression” of students which stems from outside influences may not be protected under the First Amendment if influences may not be protected under the First Amendment if school authorities feel that it interrupts the school process or violates the rights of others. But student expression which generates from within school sponsored activities may be strongly regulated by school officials. The standard school officials may use to censor school newspapers and other school-sponsored activities should be based on whether their expression was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Justice Brennan joined by Marshall and Blackmun dissented. The expressed purpose of the
was to provide a forum for students to express their views. The student publication neither disrupted nor invaded the rights of others at the high school. The operation of the school was not threatened. The dissenting three admonished the principal’s “brutal manner” in cutting the two articles without talking to the students editors who could have found alternative ways of expressing their views. Where else but in public schools can students from diverse backgrounds express and explore controversial ideas without being unduly censored by self-appointed “thought police?”
In applying the standard in
to the speech of the white valedictorian in an otherwise all black graduating class, was the school official justified in censoring her opinion at a graduation ceremony sponsored by the school? Were the ideas of her speech stemming from an outside source as in
? Or were her views related directly to a school sponsored activity?
Students will have an interesting discussion of First Amendment protections in the lesson plans that follow: