The Hazelwood Decision and the Health Education Curriculum

Article excerpt

One major concern for teachers involves determining appropriate content for discussion within the school. Teachers regularly must make these decisions. School boards and administrators, however, hold ultimate decision-making power.[1] Events occurring within the school but outside of the health classroom may influence what health educators teach. This commentary describes an incident involving publication of a student newspaper that led to a Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and potential implications of the Court's decision for health educators.


Hazelwood is a Missouri school district. In 1983, several articles were removed from a student newspaper at a high school in the Hazelwood district. Kuhlmeier was an editor of the paper from which articles were removed.[2] The articles dealt with teen-age pregnancy, sexual activity by teenagers, and divorce of parents of some students in the district. The school's principal was concerned that the pregnant teens and the divorcing parents could be identified. Names of the pregnant teens were not revealed. One student who made negative statements about her father was identified by name in the proof seen by the principal. The principal was concerned that the parent was not given a chance to respond. The name, however, was deleted from the final draft of the article. The principal decided to remove the two pages of the paper that contained the controversial articles and allow the rest of the paper to be published.[2,3]

The refusal to publish these two pages triggered lawsuits, and eventually the Supreme Court heard the case. The Supreme Court ruled, 5-3, in 1988 that school administrators could prevent materials from being published in school newspapers if administrators believed the materials did not match the educational goals and objectives of the school. This decision has been used as the basis for subsequent court and/or administrative decisions pertaining to other school issues in and out of the classroom. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch. April 28, 1999: Available at: ... df923e79117 d862563a3007f0a59?OpenDocument).[4-6] Censorship of students occurred before Hazelwood, but this decision made it easier to limit student discussion of certain sensitive issues, even if they were not specified in the Hazelwood decision. In addition to censorship of sexuality related stories, stories about drugs have been suppressed (Available at: 1998/1/13hazel.asp).

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier revolved around the issue of student speech. Because of actions by the courts and school administrators, however, the Hazelwood decision has been extended to what can be included in a curriculum and to academic freedom. Inglehart commented that the decision is sweeping enough that it may include items utilized by instructors for their pupils.[7] Health educators in K-12 settings may find that "academic freedom claims.... always tenuous at the precollegiate level, are even less likely to succeed in light of Hazelwood."[5,8]

Inglehart lists topics the Supreme Court's Hazelwood decision may prohibit. Some topics from that list that may be discussed in a health class and may be censored under Hazelwood include: "advocating the use of alcohol, materials emotionally improper, materials revealing the most intimate concerns of individuals, irresponsible sex information, materials beyond the emotional maturity of students, political controversy, political advocacy, [and] sexually explicit speech which is not legally obscene."[7] Teachers might be inclined to see some of these topics banned, but their effectiveness would be severely limited if the entire list was prohibited.[7] In addition, most if not of all of these topics are open to interpretation, making the teacher's job more complicated.


Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier led to further restrictions on the teaching of English and on the rights of students taking English to freely express their ideas. …