Analysis of High School Newspaper Editorials before and after Hazelwood School District V. Kuhlmeier: A Content Analysis Case Study

By Lomicky, Carol S. | Journal of Law and Education, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Analysis of High School Newspaper Editorials before and after Hazelwood School District V. Kuhlmeier: A Content Analysis Case Study


Lomicky, Carol S., Journal of Law and Education


Abstract

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier,1 the U.S. Supreme Court said public school officials can censor school-sponsored expression for legitimate educational purposes. The decision raises concerns that high school newspapers no longer will publish controversial information or criticism of school policy. This study, a content analysis case study of student-written newspaper editorials at a Midwestern public high school before and after the decision, found that more than three times as many editorials of criticism were published prior to the Court's decision. The paper argues that since the 1988 Supreme Court decision the student journalists at this public high school are less likely to criticize school policy or discuss controversial issues in their editorials.

A Content Analysis Case Study

In the fall of 1997 the principal of a Midwestern public high school informed the student newspaper adviser that an article about a new and controversial class scheduling plan would have to be cut or changed before it could be published. In fact, journalism educators at this school report that for the past ten years administrators routinely preview the student newspaper before the publication is taken to the local printer. This situation is not unusual at high schools throughout the country, for, since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 2 school officials increasingly control and censor otherwise constitutionally protected content. 3

Although the adviser for the school newspaper examined in this study reports that administrators seldom cut or change articles, she believes Hazelwood's legacy has been that student journalists and advisers are unlikely to tackle controversial topics or criticize school policy.

This study seeks to examine the impact of the Hazelwood decision on the content of this school-sponsored student newspaper by analyzing student-- written editorials published before and after the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision on January 13, 1988. Specifically, in terms of the high school under study here, was the situation described above an isolated incident? Or has the Hazelwood decision essentially chilled the willingness of student journalists to write about serious issues or controversial concerns? This article first provides a brief overview of press freedom and the public high school press. Second, this article summarizes the literature, found primarily in journalism/mass communications scholarly and professional publications, regarding Hazelwood's impact on the student press. Finally, the author, in a content analysis case study, assesses the impact of the 1988 decision on one Midwestern public high school's student newspaper.

Press Freedom and the Public High School Press

In the 5-3 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier4 ruling, the Supreme Court gave school officials considerable latitude in controlling the content of school-sponsored high school student publications and, thus, significantly curtailed First Amendment protections accorded student speech. For almost twenty years prior to the 1988 Hazelwood decision, the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 5 was the standard for scholastic press freedom. Under Tinker, school officials could restrict student speech-student newspapers and yearbooks-only if the speech "materially disrupt[ed] class work or involve[d] substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others."6 Thus, pre-Hazelwood, and especially in the 1970s and 1980s, student journalists had the relative freedom to publish articles on a variety of controversial topics. In fact, throughout those decades, lower federal courts held that students had the right to run articles about teen sexuality, birth control and abortion, drug abuse and criminal conduct by students, as well as commentaries critical of school policies and personnel.7

But this trend toward student press freedom abruptly ended in 1988 with the High Court's decision in Hazelwood School District v. …

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