Self-Censorship and Freedom of the Public High School Press

By Dickson, Thomas V. | The Journalism Educator, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview
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Self-Censorship and Freedom of the Public High School Press


Dickson, Thomas V., The Journalism Educator


For more than 25 years, researchers harbored three basic assumptions about the scholastic press: a) that school officials have shown little respect for student journalists' First Amendment rights; b) that student journalists are too deferential to school authorities; and c) that the student press tends to avoid controversial topics.

Researchers expected to find that the situation had worsened after the Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which allowed school officials to censor school-sponsored publications that are not public forums and to muzzle the speech of faculty members. Research following the ruling suggested that was not the case, however.

Post-Hazelwood researchers found that high school principals and publications advisers did not see much change in the amount of student-newspaper censorship following the ruling. Critics of such research, however, say that these results are based upon arguably biased reports. They also suggest that unpublished prohibitions on content, pressure on student journalists, intimidation and student deference often negate the need for overt censorship. Phillips surmised the following from her pre-and post-Hazelwood study of North Carolina high schools:

In all schools, advisers exert subtle pressure and, in practice, most of them are censors by the definition applied in this study: both cutting controversial material and instituting a policy or atmosphere of intimidation that causes students to refrain from printing certain materials in the school newspaper. Clearly, persistent student editor deference to such authority has a stultifying effect on the student press.(1)

Post-Hazelwood researchers usually have studied only censorship and have been unable to determine if self-censorship is a problem for the scholastic press. Neither have they determined why press freedom did not suffer after the Hazelwood ruling. Their research points out the need for a reassessment of the extent of press freedom at U.S. public high schools. It also identifies a need to study factors associated with scholastic press freedom.

Previous studies

Studies before 1969 often found that scholastic press freedom was limited by the whims of school officials.(2) But in 1969, the Supreme Court stated in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that students did not lose their First Amendment rights while at school, if they were not disruptive. Because of that ruling, lower courts upheld student press freedom in a number of cases. Research conducted in the decade following the Tinker decision, however, found that the decision had not led to much of an increase in student press freedom.(3)

While supporters of the scholastic press expected an increase in prior restraint to take place because of the Hazelwood ruling, researchers conducting surveys in three states shortly after the ruling concluded that few advisers or principals anticipated changes in their publications.(4) Several national studies of principals and advisers in the early years of the Hazelwood era seemed to confirm that the ruling had little impact on scholastic press freedom.(5)

In the one reported study that included opinions of students, Crow found that Texas high school principals and student editors were in substantial agreement concerning the extent of prior restraint that had occurred at the school. Principals' and editors' responses to opinion questions about press freedom, however, were significantly different.(6)

While research following the Hazelwood ruling called into question basic assumptions about the extent to which student press freedom existed, researchers' findings also were challenged. The Student Press Law Center, for example, reported that the number of requests for its assistance increased 143 percent from 1988 through 1992. It stated that "[m]uch of the increase is believed to be the result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v.

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