Freedom of the Press Stops at the Schoolhouse Gate

By Goodman, Mark | Nieman Reports, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Freedom of the Press Stops at the Schoolhouse Gate


Goodman, Mark, Nieman Reports


The consequences of student press censorship could be devastating.

For most high school journalism teachers and publication advisers, teaching students to be responsible journalists means instilling in them an unwavering commitment to the public's right to know the truth. In this time of moral ambiguity, that is a surprisingly easy sell to young people, who desperately want to believe their lives can make a difference.

But teaching this lesson, which is at the very heart of the profession of journalism, has never been more difficult. The censorship faced by teen journalists and those who work with them today is constant and debilitating. The consequences, for the future of high school journalism and the entire profession, could be devastating.

Many who have not read a high-school newspaper in several decades may be surprised to learn how the medium has grown up. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that students had the right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Students, the Court ruled, do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. As a result, public school officials were forced to recognize that some free press protections applied to the high-school media. By the early 1980's, courts across the country had ruled that unless public school officials could demonstrate some evidence that substantial disruption of school activities was imminent, they could not censor school-sponsored student publications simply because they were controversial or expressed unpopular views. As a result of these protections, the quality of high-school journalism soared as students began to discuss real issues such as teen pregnancy and school board policies instead of limiting their coverage to movie reviews and sports scores.

In January 1988, the Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under the burgeoning success of the high-school press. In a case that arose from a school in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, the Court said that school officials had the authority to censor stories about teen pregnancy and divorce from a highschool newspaper. In its ruling in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, the Court said school officials have the authority to censor most avenues of school-sponsored student expression when they can show that their censorship is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." That phrase (Supreme Court legalese for having an educational excuse) dramatically lowered the First Amendment hurdle that lower courts had said school officials had to overcome before they could legally censor student media.

To no one's surprise, requests for legal assistance received by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in the years since the ruling have increased dramatically. In 1988, the SPLC received 548 calls for help from students and their advisers around the country. By 1999, that number had increased to more than 1,600.

The sad fact is that for many school officials, their primary commitment is not to teaching students the values of a democratic society or the principles of good journalism but to ensure that their school is portrayed in a positive light, no matter how unrealistic that portrayal may be. Censorship of the student media is one way they achieve that, as dozens of students and advisers tell the Student Press Law Center each month. Some recent examples:

* In Indiana, a principal censored a story that painstakingly described how freshman football players were threatened and beaten by upperclassmen as part of an annual hazing ritual. After the newspaper staff threatened to go to the local media, the principal allowed an edited version of the story to be published.

* In California, high school administrators censored a story about the growing popularity of "backyard wrestling," an organized effort by students to mimic television's professional wrestling matches, which sometimes results in physical injuries. …

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