Does press freedom stop at the schoolhouse door?

ALMOST as soon the Supreme Court opens its doors for business this fall, the justices will be faced with an important First Amendment issue: free speech for a student press. The high court will hear arguments Oct. 13 weighing the right of high school students to publish uncensored newspaper articles about sensitive social issues against the responsibility of education officials to set standards in terms of protecting students and the community from information that might lead to social disruption.

The key to resolving this case from Missouri could lie in how the court applies a previous high court ruling that students' free expression may be limited only if their actions ``materially disrupt'' classwork activities or substantially invade the rights of others.

In 1969, the justices said in a case involving the right of students to wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam war that young people ``do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door.''

More recent high court rulings, however, have appeared to narrow student constitutional protections - not only in the speech area but also in criminal-justice matters.

For instance, two years ago in a much-publicized New Jersey school search-and-seizure case, the court indicated that the rights of students to be free from warrantless searches are less than those of adults. At the same time, however, it was stressed that students did enjoy some constitutional protections.

Last year, the justices ruled in a Washington State case that a high school student has no protected right to make a ``lewd and offensive'' speech in a school assembly.

The present case has a new twist - at least for the Supreme Court. It involves a school principal's removal from a student newspaper of a package of articles on youth pregnancy at the school and the effect of parental divorce on teen-agers. These pieces were written by students in conjunction with the journalism curriculum.

School authorities defended the principal's action, arguing that it protected the privacy of the students and their parents. The officials claimed that since only a handful of girls at the school were pregnant at the time, those interviewed could be readily identified although their names were not used in the articles.

Also, the principal said the information on divorce lacked balance, for it presented only the students' point of view - and not that of their parents.

Nevertheless, the student writers took the school to court - claiming violation of their First Amendment free-speech rights and illegal pre-publication censorship, or ``prior restraint.''

A district court judge ruled for the school - holding that since the student paper was produced as part of the curriculum, it was not ``a public forum for free expression.'' The judge also said that the principal acted reasonably to protect the privacy of some students and their families.

The Eighth United States Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, however, explaining that the paper was a public forum because it was ``operated as a conduit for a student viewpoint.''

Further, the appeals court ruled that there was no evidence that the articles would ``materially disrupt'' classwork, encourage campus disorder, or invade the rights of others.

Now the Supreme Court - in its first high school student press case - must decide the ``public forum'' issue in terms of First Amendment protections.

The justices must also determine whether school authorities may constitutionally censor student newspapers to prevent possible invasion of individuals' privacy, particularly if failure to do so would expose the school to liability.

Student press groups as well as a host of other journalistic groups are backing the students' claim. Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center based in Washington, D.C., insists that a fundamental free-speech right is at stake - and that a ruling against the students would encroach on journalism in general.

School administrators argue, on the other hand, that if districts lose control over education-related activities, chaos will result.

A Thursday column

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Does press freedom stop at the schoolhouse door?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today