State Free Expression Laws and Scholastic Press Censorship

By Paxton, Mark; Dickson, Tom | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

State Free Expression Laws and Scholastic Press Censorship


Paxton, Mark, Dickson, Tom, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Perhaps no judicial decision affecting the nation's scholastic press has received more attention from researchers than the Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier ruling, which allowed school administrators to censor school publications that are not public forums if the censorship is pedagogically related. Same researchers and commentators have stated that the ruling was a major change in the status of freedom of the high school press and has led to increased censorship and self-censorship (Student Press Law Center, 1994; Hernandez, 1995). Other researchers and commentators have contended that the ruling did nothing to change administrators' authority over the ability of students to send and receive information through school publications and has had minimal effect on the student press (Salomone, 1992; Click, Kopenhaver and Hatcher,1993; Dvorak, Lain and Dickson, 1994; Dickson and Paxton 1997).

In the wake of the Hazelwood ruling and the outcry over censorship of the student press, four states enacted state freedom of expression laws covering high school journalists: Arkansas (Arkansas Student Publications Act, 1995), Colorado (Rights of Free Expression for Public School Students, 1990), Iowa (Student Exercise of Free Expression, 1989), and Kansas (Student Publications,1992]. A fifth state, Massachusetts, amended its freedom of expression law (Right of Students to Freedom of Expression, 1974), following Hazelwood. A sixth state, California, already had a freedom of expression law covering high school journalists when Hazelwood was decided (Student Exercise of Freedom of Speech and Press, 1983). A 1997 attempt to enact a similar law in Illinois failed when the state Senate failed to override a veto by Gov. Jim Edgar ("Illinois Lawmakers," 1997).

This study, based on a national random-sample survey of high school newspaper advisors, is the first attempt to determine on a nationwide basis whether the amount of press freedom at public high schools differs in states with scholastic freedom of press laws and states without such laws.

Hazelwood

While not directly involving freedom of the press issues, a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision appeared to solidify the fundamental First Amendment rights of free expression for students in public schools. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the Supreme Court overturned the suspension of teen-aged students for wearing black armbands to class to demonstrate their opposition to the Vietnam war. The Court's decision, while noting that student expression disrupting classroom activity still could be banned, stated that expression that did not cause a disruption was protected by the First Amendment. "It can hardly be argued," the Court said, "that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" (p. 507). An indication that the Supreme Court was willing to differentiate between personal speech and school-sponsored speech came in 1986 when the Supreme Court in Bethel School District v. Fraser ruled that a high school student's free speech rights were not violated when he was punfished for making a speech filled with sexual innuendoes at a student assembly. As the Court said, in its opinion, "the freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society's countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior" (p. 681).

In the well-publicized and much discussed 1988 Hazelwood decision, the Supreme Court for the first time addressed the question of whether censorship of student expression in the school newspaper was unconstitutional. In the Hazelwood case, students enrolled in Journalism II at Hazelwood East High School in Missouri attempted to publish an edition of the school newspaper containing two stories that the principal disliked. One was based on interviews with students (identified with pseudonyms) who had become pregnant. …

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