Court Case Review: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier

After prior review of two controversial articles regarding teenage pregnancy and divorce in the The Spectrum, the school-run newspaper of Hazelwood East High School in Missouri, the principal decided to prohibit their publication. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988, the Supreme court upheld a loose constructivism of the constitution by limiting student first amendment rights and establishing a precedent that schools may restrict printing inappropriate content, as deemed by the administration, without violating students’ freedom of speech.

The majority, in opposition with the minority, believed student rights were not violated and won with a 5 to 3 victory. The supreme court, under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, therefore established that the principal’s decision to restrict the publication of certain inappropriate articles in the school newspaper did not infringe upon the students’ First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

Justice White spoke for the majority, claiming that The Spectrum was not a public forum, and thus was entitled to the approval of the administration. He further emphasized that due to the newspaper’s educational purpose, inappropriate material should be monitored by the school to avoid exposing students to content surpassing their own maturity level and instead publish articles that advocate proper conduct.

For the minority opinion, Justice Brennan claimed that students had signed up for the journalism class, and therefore they have the right to voice their opinions in the newspaper, a student forum. He continued to state that with prior review, students cannot freely express themselves and are hence stripped of their first amendment rights.

Both the majority and minority referred to the Tinker v. Des Moines case in 1969, which increased student rights and free expression by arguing that schools could only restrict student expression if the form of speech was disruptive or intrusive on others’ rights. Referencing the case, the minority claimed that restricting student speech in The Spectrum violated the precedent set in Tinker v. Des Moines. The Tinker case involved a group of students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, thus defying the school administration. Although they were initially punished, the Court ruled that the students had the right of free expression as long as the form of expression was not disruptive or did not infringe on the rights of others. However, in Hazelwood, the majority

of the Court opposed Tinker and asserted that the Tinker case involved students’ free expression and speech which happened to be on campus, whereas Hazelwood students were bound to a school sponsored newspaper.

Unlike in Tinker v. Des Moines, which was established during the civil rights era, the court decided on a much more conservative level in Hazelwood.

Hazelwood challenged, but did not overrun the Tinker case, since according to the Common Law Review, “Justice White was careful to distinguish the

case from Tinker by virtue of the perceived connection between the student newspaper and the school,” meaning that whereas the students involved in Tinker utilized their own personal free speech, students of the Hazelwood case were bound to a nonpublic, school-issued newspaper. Still, the Hazelwood case was not the first case after Tinker to limit student rights. In Bethel School District v. Fraser, the Court issued that public school students were not necessarily entitled to full First Amendment rights and that the school could legally prohibit foul and disrespectful language. Like Hazelwood, Bethel did not overturn Tinker, but rather “carved out an exception to it for lewd or vulgar language” that may be deemed inappropriate for minors. Thus, the case provided a basis for the Hazelwood verdict which pushed and strengthened limitations on students’ First Amendment rights.

Although a majority of states do not provide protection for student journalists, eight states, including California, have free expression laws protecting them, and two states have protection for student speech rights in education code.

The first incident in which Hazelwood came into play arose in California, immediately after the Hazelwood decision by the Supreme Court when Homestead High School in Fremont faced a student rights’ crisis. The principal of the school called for thewithdrawal of an article about a student who had tested HIV-positive, fearing controversy that may erupt with its publication. Nonetheless, the administration could not legally restrict publication due to the California Education Code Section 48907, established 11 years before Hazelwood to protect student publication rights of any non-disruptive and undamaging material. The events at Homestead clarified the rights of states to determine their own regulations on student press.

Sixteen years later, in the 2004 Dean v. Utica Community Schools case, the principal of Utica High School in Michigan restricted the publication of a certain article in the school’s newspaper, The Arrow, regarding a lawsuit filed against the school district. The court ruled that the administration had no right to prohibit publication since the newspaper could be classified as a public forum, unlike in Hazelwood. However, the court extended their argument, claiming that since students helped fund the paper, which was not strictly published for classroom purposes, the reporters were not subject to prior review.


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