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Talking Points

Question:
When school officials disallow the publishing of certain articles in the school newspaper are the student writers' free speech rights violated?

Hazelwood School District
Kuhlmeier
1. Can schools decide what speech may disrupt learning?

Affirmative. Yes.

There are limits to free speech within a public school. While the government cannot prohibit speech based upon content under most circumstances, public school authorities must be given more leeway to restrict speech in order to run a school efficiently. Among other factors, school authorities must consider whether particular speech will disrupt the learning environment if other students find it to be offensive. The articles involved in this case were about divorce and teen pregnancy as they related to specific teens and their parents. As such, they could have been offensive and could have disrupted the learning environment. The school was obligated to take precautions to protect the privacy of the subjects of these articles, especially since they were students at the school.

Negative. No.

Although school administrators must be given leeway to run a school efficiently, there is no evidence that the publication of the two articles at issue in this case would disrupt the learning environment. One involved the divorce of a student’s parents and one was about teen pregnancy, including specific, but unnamed, pregnant teens at the school. It cannot be assumed that these articles would have disrupted the school environment. The articles were presented in a tasteful and professional manner. Just because articles deal with controversial topics is not a sufficient reason for school authorities to censor them. If school administrators are preparing students to be responsible citizens, then the students must be able to investigate and report on these topics. Because the actions of the school administrators were clearly based on the content of the articles, they violated the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech. As the Court stated in Tinker v. Des Moines: Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate. . . .

2. Are school newspapers a limited public forum or an unlimited public forum that schools can control?

Affirmative. Yes.

The state, including public school administrators, has always had more authority to limit speech in certain situations. When school authorities open an activity to everyone without restrictions, they can almost never limit the content of the speech. However, when school authorities control access to the activity, they may limit the content of speech to what is appropriate for that event. Here, the school sought to limit controversial speech in the Journalism II writing class that published the school newspaper. The school did not give students the freedom to publish whatever they liked. Instead, it ultimately retained final editorial discretion over publications. As a result, the student newspaper was a limited public forum for which the school, if it chose, could use its discretion to prevent the publication of certain materials.

Negative. No.

Essentially, the school established a public forum in the Journalism II course that published the newspaper. The school delegated all editorial decisions to the paper. Unless there was a non-content-based reason for striking an article, the school could not prohibit the publication just because the administration found articles controversial.

3. Are schools responsible for student newspapers and, if so, do they have the right to censor the content?

Affirmative. Yes.

The school retains ultimate responsibility for publishing the newspaper. The school’s name is on the newspaper; therefore, any stories that are found in it can be attributed to the school and its administration. The school retains the right to edit the content of the paper to ensure that neither the school nor its administration is portrayed in an inappropriate light.

Negative. No.

Basically, the school delegated responsibility for publishing the paper to the Journalism II class. As such, it waived responsibility for the content. If the school felt strongly that a given article should not be published, it could send out a disclaimer announcing that it is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily agree with, the content of the article. However, the school could not censor the article. In the extreme, the administration might shut down the paper at the conclusion of a school year and not renew the Journalism II course, but it cannot decide to prohibit the publication of certain articles.